Thursday, October 3, 2013

How God has used the Spiritual Academy Retreats in My Life. (Ted Talk-Extended Version)

The following is the extended version of a Ted Talk I gave today on the impact of the four Spiritual Academy retreats I have experienced over the last eighteen months. In the fall of 2009 I did a sermon series at my church called, The Geography of Grace. It was a study of Ephesians and it focused on spiritual formation, a topic I had been living with for over a year at that point. The final message in the series was given by me on Sunday, December 12th. This was just two weeks before I went in for my annual physical and which two days after that my doctor called me to say that my PSA count was a concern, having doubled in the last year. PSA stands for Prostate Specific Antigen. I was 58 years old and in the best shape I had been for some time and suddenly the geography of my life was about to change dramatically taking me into dark and unknown territory. As it turned out my sermon series ended at the beginning of what would become the next significant steps in my own spiritual journey, steps which continue to this day. From that December to the following May I took pills and went through tests and scans and finally a biopsy determined that I had early, but aggressive prostate cancer. The doctors were optimistic, but didn't want to waste any time and I underwent surgery on May 18th. The post op lab report three days later said, “Tumor contained in the prostate, all margins clear.” Both my specialist and my surgeon phoned me the same afternoon to tell me the positive news and wish me a good weekend. My recovery went well and I was back to work in two weeks. Three months later I had my follow up PSA test and was very pleased to see a zero where before there had been a large number. I went to my follow up appointment with a smile on my face and a word of cheer for all the people at the clinic. The news was less than stellar. It turns out I wasn't out of the woods yet. Instead of a PSA reading of 0.00 my three month post op reading was 0.52.
The doctor said, he was concerned to see this and rather mystified that he did. For the next three months we watched the PSA count climb and by 0.7 it didn't appear to be leveling off. My life soon became be a by the numbers game. All the things I had been told before the surgery that were very unlikely contingency measures including the prospect of weeks of radiation treatments and two or more years of hormone therapy shots were fast becoming the possible next steps. Within two weeks of discovering where the cancer had migrated to those tasked with my now upcoming radiation treatments were surveying the locations of my organs and tattooing sign posts on me to make a road map to guide the machine which would give me the maximum dose of radiation allowed for human beings. I found myself asking, is this journey really necessary? Did God’s shepherding of my life mean the green pastures would now turn to mud, the still waters stagnate and from here on would my paths lead only into dark valleys? And not only was my journey becoming dark and fearful, I realized just how unprepared I was to make the trek. Heretofore, I had spent my travel time focused on the next challenge, climbing over the moguls in my path like stepping stones on the way to achieving the heights I most desired. Sometimes the journey had been more like a race than a walk. Speed was the thing and with such a focus on the mission that those things in my life peripheral to it were simply a blur as I sped past them. In fact I had been running the race with such singular focus for so long that I couldn’t remember large sections of its’ scenery or even be able to tell myself just how I had arrived at my present location. And now it would appear I was in a new kind of race. A race for just being able to stay in the race and not only was I ill prepared for it, but I was trying to do it while running on fumes. My tank was reading empty. Sadly, this was not the first time that had happened. My tank had been empty before. It had gone dry in 1986 after 15 years of marriage and career pursuit and in that part of the race I went completely off the course, slamming into the hay bales and flipping over without a roll bar. The geography of my journey then became that of burn out, separation and near divorce, as well as, the loss of my chosen occupation and the ministry that went with it. I have described that time to others as the one in which I could taste death in my mouth. And what of the geography of grace? I suppose during that first road wreck grace was present in things like having to work long hours at trying to make it as a new insurance agent. Grace was also to be found in God’s Spirit patiently hovering over the waters of my chaos and helping me to begin to make some sense out of them. Grace was separation from my wife and time alone where I found space to recognize the desperation and neediness raging in my heart. And there was one other way that grace was made real in my situation, but in a way not known to me until many years later and is still an absolute mystery to me in how it could have been there, …or why. A couple had lived next door to us and had become our good friends up to and including the car wreck period of our journey. They were upwardly mobile, art loving, wine drinking educated pagans. They were everything I secretly longed to be at times and we loved them! They were people safe to be with while venting ministry steam and stress. They were the least judgmental people I knew. They watched my wife and I come to the end of ourselves, crash and burn. Years later I baptized them. They told me that it was knowing my wife and me and watching us live our lives through difficult times that convinced them of their own spiritual need and to seek the Jesus we had professed to know and did such a terrible job of following. …Grace. I suppose this all makes the case for the need for spiritual formation in my life and being in an academy such as this one. It was in between learning I had cancer and the first round of dealing with it that I took part in the first Space for God Retreat in our church conference. A small group of Free Methodist pastors were invited to a three day experience at the Catholic Retreat Center in Federal Way, WA. Morris and Rita led the experience. At the retreat God used Morris and Rita to speak into my life in such a way that my troubled steps began to find new direction in grace and toward growth. After the retreat, as I continued sharing with Rita she envisioned some of the journey ahead of me. Rita could see me and what God would be doing with me, ahead of my being able to see it. Because of this prophetic seeing I was encourage to believe God for more than I would have and that included coming to take part in this cohort of the Spiritual Academy. The challenges of my journey these past eighteen months have been set in the context of the location, content and fellowship of this experience and God has been using this in my life. The location of the abbey is near to where I went to seminary. Coming to our retreat here has allowed me space to revisit the geographical locations where parts of my earlier life took place and God in grace has been using this to redeem much of what I had come to believe had been lost in the chaos of later decisions. Being in the Academy has given me an elevated view of my journey similar to the one we get when we look down on the vineyards below the Abbey. More and more I have been enabled to see my journey from God’s perspective rather than just my own down in the valley view of it and that has given me more insight into it. While at the second retreat God spoke to me in a profound manner. I had been reading the Gospel of Mark prior to coming and about 5 minutes into our centering time before the first presentation I heard the Lord say to me, You are the man of Mark 8. You have been touched by me and though you have been able to see these many years, much of it is still a blur. …I am going to touch you again and give you clarity. The next day while Rita was presenting the clarity came and I filled ten pages of notes on how my life was connected to God’s grace. It was incredible. The map of my life which revealed so many slippery paths, arid spaces, tar pits, box canyons and dark valleys was suddenly redrawn into a spiritual landscape that only God could create and lead me through. The impact of the Academy on my ministry at church has been wonderful. The church family has been helped by having their pastor endeavor to draw closer to God. The work of God in my life has led me to a new transparency, freedom and power in my preaching, teaching and counseling ministries. And the new tools and resources I have been learning to use have enabled me to be more intentional about shepherding my congregation in the way of spiritual formation. An example of this is the development of what we call the First Step, Next Step and Disciple Road Experience. (Ad lib this part) Finally there is this. Of all the benefits I have enjoyed from attending the Academy, all the ways it has helped me and spilled over from me into my ministry to and with others, the most profound benefit of all has come from doing the soul care which has placed me in a position to be able to experience the grace of forgiveness. To be forgiven and to forgive. I have traversed the ways of bitterness far too long and it has been a cancer in my soul. It has been the content of the Academy, the timing of it and the shared experience of it with you that the Holy Spirit has used to set my feet on the path of forgiveness. It has been during these four retreats that I have found God’s grace to return to and remember rightly some of the most painful, hurtful and sinful parts of my story and to see God transform me and others in relation to it. I can’t imagine making that trip alone. I thank God that I didn't have to.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey. It's amazing to see what God does for the heart that truly seeks him.