I was walking along the cliff over-looking the Pacific, breathing in the cool ocean air on an unusually beautiful January afternoon. My mind and body were just starting to unwind after a hectic week of dealing with deadlines and commitments, my restaurant guests needing endless amounts of little luxuries, and expectations of who I need to be, whether real or perceived, weighing heavy upon my soul. But it’s amazing how the Santa Cruz mountains and the silence button on my phone can seem to separate me from all that so much more than the forty miles from Campbell to Aptos.
It wasn’t a typical start to a church getaway for me. Usually I’m lost in a clutter of people, baggage and details. But God gives us little pieces of grace all the time if we can only keep our eyes open and find them. Not that my eyes were even totally open and focused on God. My feeble attempts at a poetic interpretation of my life are usually foiled by worries and irritating distractions. This day it was all the people with their dogs walking between me on my park bench and the ocean I stared out at, trying to see God in the crashing waves. Sometimes I try to make life more of a poem, but focusing on the imperfections of things seem to weigh me down from the freedom I long for.
God sees me in the little prison I keep on voluntarily walking into, and this day I heard Him inviting me out, like He does every day. I simply asked Him, what do You want me to focus on this weekend? And in the small amount of stillness I was able to muster I heard Him telling me, walk in My grace this weekend. Live free. Don’t be weighed down by what you think you need to be to please other people. Just be forgiven and let me love you. I think it was something He tries to tell me often, and despite my distractedness, He gave me the little bit of grace in the moment to hear it. It was the simplest thing He could say to me, and something so basic to my faith.
The truth is that I often care a lot about what people think of me. Even as I write this I scan over my words wondering what people will think of them. I care about impressing leaders and bosses. I care about my reputation and how my interactions with people affect it. I care about being respected. These cares turn into toil for me, as I try to earn respect.
I decided that this weekend at Seascape Resort I was going to focus on what God put on my heart. And it was ironic, but “focusing” on what He put on my heart really meant not trying so hard. For me trying can become a chore, even when it’s trying for God. I can get really focused on some way I need to grow and my striving to correct some deficiency becomes counter-productive, leading to stress and legalism that weighs down heavy on me and those around me. This isn’t to say striving for God is bad, but that it becomes an idol when we try too hard with the wrong heart. And that is an idol I often wrestle with. But this weekend God’s Spirit inside of me gave me that gentle leading not to strive, not to achieve, but to just be. Be loved. Be forgiven. Be free.
This retreat ended up being the best retreat I’ve ever been to.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Those are the words Jesus said to religious people like me. But on the Pacific coastline, the burden on my shoulders was light as I walked with a knowledge of God’s simple love for me. A knowledge that this love isn’t contingent on my performance or what others think of me, but on who He is. And who He is never changes. He’s my father. I’m His child.
Those couple days I wasn’t focused on being someone. It wasn’t to impress a girl. I wasn’t so focused on getting attention. I wasn’t trying so hard to prove my capabilities as a leader to my small group guys. I wasn’t trying to impress the leaders above me. I wasn’t focused on being a better listener or leader or worshiper. I let the knowledge of who I am in Christ set some things free in my soul.
No, it wasn’t perfect. I still sinned. I still had judgmental or legalistic thoughts, on others and myself. But letting my mind just rest in the knowledge of God’s love for me was an incredible exercise. I found myself loving other people better, worshiping better, having better conversations, and simply having more fun.
Now it’s time to live out Jay Kim’s exhortation to embrace the fact that our deeper experience of sinking into God at a retreat is what’s real. And our foggy view of God here amongst the stress and distraction of life is fake. Not the other way around. Because that’s the way God designed it. For me, living with a lighter load on my back must become a reality that I walk in every day. And for me to embrace that, it’s not about striving and doing more. It’s about just being. Being loved.
Author: Jeff Oleson