The Lord is my shepherd;Psalm 23:1-3(a) New Living Translation
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
My experience of Pops’ Workshop, the way it unfolded in my life, was varied and often surprising. I would enter into prayer seeking an encounter in the Workshop. Sometimes those efforts were fruitful, but many times they were not. Other times I would simply be still, seeking the presence of the Lord in contemplative prayer, and would find myself unexpectedly in the Workshop. Then, there were times like this one, when I would not even be consciously praying, and the Workshop would suddenly break in on my thoughts. When and how I engaged with Pops in his Workshop was clearly all in his hands. God knew what I needed or was about to need and graciously guided the timing and nature of my “visits” according to his timing and plan. The stairs at the back of the Workshop are a prime example of this.
Down the Stairs
The stairs were in the center of the back wall, between where I first encountered Jesus and the hole. They led down and long seemed inviting to me. Whenever I asked the Lord about them, wanting to know where they led, all I heard was, essentially, “Don’t worry about it.” Why would there be some feature of the workshop that seemed to have no purpose?
Looking back, I am certain that my interest in the stairs was mainly a way to avoid the rocks and muck that were down in the hole. I had a good idea that something would have to be done about the mess down in the hole, and I guessed that I wouldn’t very much enjoy it. So, I focused my attention on the stairs, which, while going down, still seemed much more inviting than going back down in the dark, dank, nasty hole and dealing with all that inner work that the hole was pointing me toward.
Given that I used thinking about the stairs to avoid the mess down in the hole, I was surprised one Sunday when, while driving to church—not praying, not really thinking about anything at all, just driving to church—I was suddenly shown where the stairs led. They are an exit, a way down to a back door out of the Workshop to a tranquil, bucolic mountain meadow. The door at the bottom of the stairs opened out to an unpaved path that curved off gently to the right, arcing through a stand of aspen. The trail was not long, but by the time it emptied into the meadow, the workshop was completely obscured behind the trees.
The meadow itself was not very large, no more than five or six acres. It was surrounded by aspen; look in any direction and you would see the aspen with their leaves gently quivering. Beyond the aspen, conifers marched up the side of the mountain.
The footpath that brought me to the meadow continued, sloping gently down to a running brook, crystal clear. I don’t know if it was the same stream I was shown earlier, the place to receive healing from the wounds of the black snakes, but it certainly could be. Tall green grass filled the meadow, sharing space with clusters of white, yellow, and purple flowers. The sun was warm, but I was not hot; the breeze was refreshing. It seemed to be a place of perpetual springtime. It was the kind of place that made you want to kick off your shoes, lay back in the grass, and have a nap while you are warmed by the sun and sung to by the rustling grasses, the stream, and the birds.
Despite the delightful nature of the meadow, it puzzled me a bit. Clearly, it was behind the workshop, but why the stairs? Why not just go out the front door and walk around to the back to get to the meadow; the workshop was not that big! But I learned that this was not possible. In a way that doesn’t make any sense in the natural world, there is no way around the workshop. The only way to get to the meadow is to go through the workshop. Whatever the meadow was for, it was intimately tied to the workshop and what happened there.
As I lingered in the meadow, I slowly understood its purpose. The meadow was a place that I would need for rest: a place to be still in the presence of God and recharge. Of course, it came at just the right time. The timing was right regarding where I was in my spiritual journey. It came just as I was encountering the rocks and muck that were fouling the life-giving water, water that should have been flowing and available in the Workshop. Understanding that I was responsible for the sorry state of affairs had left me feeling discouraged and overwhelmed. I knew I would have to clean up the mess, but I was still learning to stop making the mess. I had no idea how to clean up the debris and muck that I had accumulated over the last fifty years. Yet here I was, trying to avoid the hard work that I knew was coming – the work of cleaning up the mess. In his compassion, the Lord provides both the means to rest and recover and a promise that those means would always be available. I could go down the stairs, and out into the meadow anytime I needed to. I soon learned that I would often need the refreshment of the meadow.
Hard Work at the “Wall”
In Chapter 2, I introduced the “Wall,” as described by authors Hagberg and Guelich. They identify six stages in spiritual development or growth. In the first three stages, we are largely focused outwardly, defining ourselves by what we believe, who we follow, and what we do. Stages four, five, and six describe a shift that has us looking inward. That shift culminates in an inner spiritual and psychological transformation. Here again is their description of the Wall, which we run into as we begin to turn inward:
Our wrestling with the Wall plays a vital role in the process of our spiritual healing. The Wall represents the place where another layer of transformation occurs and a renewed life of faith begins . . . [it] represents our will meeting God’s will face to face. We decide anew whether we are willing to surrender and let God direct our lives.
The Wall is where we toil and struggle to come to grips with who we are and who God is.
The process of meeting the Wall requires going through the Wall, not underneath it, over it, around it, or blasting it. We must go through it brick by brick, feeling and healing each element of our wills as we surrender to God’s will. Our ego and will are transformed and made new. They are not transcended or risen above. We do not learn to get rid of them but to submit them. Along with spiritual healing comes psychological healing. We believe these transformations occur simultaneously at the Wall. We move toward wholeness and holiness. We do not get rid of ego or will. We release them. We let them be turned inside out so that unconditional love can emerge.
The journey through the wall is usually very long and very difficult. If I were to make it through the Wall, I would need the meadow, a place to rest and be refreshed. I know this only in hindsight. I had never heard of the Wall and wouldn’t read The Critical Journey until a year after I first came to the meadow. I didn’t know what I was in the middle of nor what was coming, but God knew and graciously provided for my need before I was even aware of it.
The timing of the appearance of the meadow would turn out to be providential, but it was also timed to coincide with events in the natural world. My experience of the meadow unfolded in a matter of a few minutes as I drove to church on a Sunday morning. At church that day, I learned the sad news about Dan, the pastor of a church thousands of miles from my home in Arizona. I had prayed with and for Dan. He encouraged me in my Christian walk, and I had ministered in his church. I greatly admired Dan and counted him as a friend.
That morning, not twenty minutes after my trip down the stairs, out the back door and to the meadow, I learned that Dan, burned out, had resigned his pastorate. He was burned out; he had not availed himself of rest and now had nothing left to give. The Lord was letting me know that there is rest in him, even in the midst of hard work. Dan’s story was a bitter reminder and a timely reminder of the need to take that rest.
All Christians are called to lives of service; we each have ministry assignments. It makes no practical difference whether we are professional clergy or serve as laypeople. It doesn’t matter if we are appointed to leadership positions in a local body or serve in another way; we each have a ministry call and a role to play. As we grow and mature, we often press more and more into our ministry. If we are not careful, we can easily empty ourselves.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century abbot, invites us to think about streams and reservoirs:
The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself… Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. So urgent is the charity of those through whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us, that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselvesBernard of Clairvaux
That metaphor applies to our time with God. If our relationship with our Lord is not full, we are likely not in a good position to help others be filled. We can find ourselves “out of gas” when we need it most.
The same is true as we press on with the hard work of spiritual formation and transformation. God has already done the work of saving us; none of us could ever save ourselves. But that truth does not minimize the toll that spiritual transformation can take on us. Digging up and facing old injuries done to us and, even worse, facing the injuries we have inflicted on others is emotionally exhausting.
We are on a journey. The fact that God propels us on our way does not obviate the trip’s difficulty. There will still be treks through dry and dusty wastelands. We will still find ourselves climbing impossibly steep mountains and suffering biting cold. We cannot go it alone. We can and should draw strength from others with whom we can share our journey: a pastor, a spiritual director, or trusted friends who are mature in their faith.
Those sustaining relationships are necessary, but they are not sufficient. To survive, we must hide ourselves in God: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col 3:2-4, NRSV). We must turn to Christ, who knows and cares for us at the soul-level. He is “one of us” and showed us the pattern of getting away to rest in God. See, for example, Mark 1:35, 1:45, 3:13, 6:30-32, and 14:32-36. We must submit ourselves to his rest. We must find our meadows where we can be renewed and sustained for the journey.
For me, the only way to the meadow is through the workshop. There are no shortcuts to the peace and refreshment of being in the presence of God. I was learning that the only way to really experience the peace of knowing God was through some hard work. The meadow comes after the knowledge of the work that needs to be done, in my case, the hard work of cleaning up the rocks and muck to restore the flow of water below the workshop.
To say I lingered in the meadow is confusing, even to me. The entire vision could not have lasted more than a few moments. I was driving, after all. Nonetheless, I experienced the passage of significant time in the meadow.
Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company, 1989), p. 114, Kindle edition.
Ibid., p. 119.
“Dan” is a pseudonym. The person and the experience are real.