Making Room for God
Making room for God involves saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to come to him:
“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” —Matthew 11:28-30, The Message
Making room for God is indispensable to spiritual vitality. That’s what we learn from Jesus. That’s what the saints of old attest to as well. Through these regular practices, we come to experience Jesus' loving presence and supernatural power and open ourselves to the Spirit's transforming work.
But making room for God is challenging in a world characterized by hurry and hyperstimulation. Yet those who seek after God with intention and perseverance find him. In finding him, we also discover soul-rest and abundant living.
Practices That Make Room for God
Historically, there are two types of Christian practices that make room for God. These are practices of abstinence and practices of engagement. They function together like breathing: inhaling and exhaling, emptying and filling. We need both for our spiritual life.
According to Dallas Willard, in practices of abstinence we’re saying “no” to certain things in order to say “yes” to others. Practices of abstinence include solitude, silence, sabbath, simplicity, secrecy, sacrifice, fasting, and chastity. Our culture has a collective “fear of missing out” (FOMO). But in practices of abstinence we intentionally withdraw or do without. We make room for something far greater: Jesus’ presence and provision.
In practices of engagement we commit to certain practices and habits individually and in community. These include practices of meditation, prayer, worship, fellowship, hospitality, celebration, service, confession, and submission. We develop these habits in order that Christ may be more fully formed in us for the sake of others.
In this section you’ll find four of these practices—two of abstinence and two of engagement. There are many other rich practices that can help you make room for God. We encourage you to ask God’s guidance in discerning what your soul needs. A Spiritual Director may also be helpful in the discernment process.
Practice of Abstinence: Silence and Solitude
Ordinarily the practices of silence and solitude are paired together. Through them we disengage from external noise and the responsibilities of human relationships. Through them we quiet the internal noise of our minds and hearts. Decluttering internally and externally helps us to be more fully present to God. Being more fully present, we can hear better and respond to the Holy Spirit's still, small voice.
Unplugging is a related practice, “calling us to leave the world of technology in order to become more present to God and others” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Calhoun). It pairs well with silence and solitude. Since we’re connected 24/7, it takes intentionality to go “off grid”—to forgo texting, checking email and Facebook, playing games, and watching TV. But the benefits of occasional unplugging are substantial.
“I love to unplug. There, I’ve said it. At our SPE retreat two summers ago, I forgot my phone charger and, over the weekend, forgot all about my phone. This unintentional blessing created a realization in me that I am too dependent on my personal devices. That time without my phone was distraction-free, focused, engaging, and worshipful. I entered more easily into prayer, conversation, and even helpfulness in our shared kitchen. What a gift ‘unplugging’ is for me!”
—Adrian de Lange, pastor of New Life CRC, Grand Junction, Colorado
- In solitude “you become you in a deeper way. And you begin to hear the whisper of the Divine,” says Cliff Bajema in The Banner article “Come to the Quiet.”
- “After the rampant busyness of my life as a 24/7 on-duty pastor, at the Hermitage I found a major missing component of my health—a focus on being, not doing,” says retired Baptist pastor Mel Williams. Read more about the life-giving impact his monastery visits had on him in the “The Gifts of Being.”
- Two recommended books: Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton and The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen.
- Guided personal retreat: If this is a new practice for you, you may benefit from having an experienced person guide you. Many retreat facilities provide such a person. Check with colleagues or your regional pastor, or call some facilities in your area directly to see whether they furnish this kind of support.
- Self-guided retreat. Find ideas for planning a personal retreat day in the book A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God. The design of the retreat corresponds to the movements of Lectio Divina. In A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants you’ll find twelve monthly retreat models, each with a pastoral theme, such as “Principles That Give Life,” “The Call to Serve,” and “The Demands of Ministry.”
Practice of Abstinence: Sabbath
Primary to our calling is promoting and maintaining the church’s gospel ministry. We engage in that calling wholeheartedly (sometimes feverishly) because we know Christ is the world’s hope. Yet the rhythm of sabbath is actually an invitation to stop ministry activity. We stop in order to enjoy God’s gifts and restorative activities. We stop to remember our identity and find our rest in Christ alone. And by stopping, we’re proclaiming to our ego-driven world that our world belongs to God.
As Pastor Andrew Kuyvenhoven wrote, “When a person works from May to August constructing a swimming pool in his backyard, ‘Sabbath’ arrives on the day he and his friends swim in the pool. The work is finished, and behold, it is very good” (Comfort and Joy).
Like many of us, Pastor Mary Hulst is both drawn to and resistant to sabbath observance. “But stronger than the resistance is the draw,” she says. “The draw to a morning where I have nowhere to go, nothing to do. The draw to a morning of one more cup of tea, a longer time of prayer. A morning when my heart can listen to Jesus.” See the Banner article “Day Off . . . or Sabbath?”
- Article. In “Rhythms of Work and Rest for Ministry Leaders”, Kurt Fredrickson of Fuller Theological Seminary identifies some practical ways to live a Sabbath lifestyle.
- “Playing and praying”—that’s how Eugene Peterson summarizes what sabbath became for him and his wife, Jan. He tells his story in chapter 3 of Working the Angles and Chapter 26 of his memoir The Pastor.
- In Keeping the Sabbath Wholly Marva Dawn invites us to return to the God-given purpose and rhythm of sabbath, which includes ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.
- In Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives Wayne Muller reminds readers about God’s sabbath provision for the rush and pressures of our lives.
- In his book 24/6: A Prescription for a Happier, Healthier Life, Matthew Sleeth explores “remembering the Sabbath” as a concept that we have regrettably forgotten and offers guidance for restoring sabbath rhythms to our lives.
- Reflection questions. To help you explore sabbath-keeping with a mentor or small group, see questions for reflection, discussion, and journaling in the handbook Toward Effective Pastoral Mentoring as well as after each chapter in Lynne Baab’s book Sabbath Keeping.
"After being part of the SVP [Spiritual Vitality Project] and having the gift of a sabbatical (with excellent conferences I was able to attend), I have realized the importance of silence and solitude and sabbath keeping. After 23 years of youth ministry and knowing it’s not easy for me to relax and rest, I decided it was time to implement a plan. I have put a recliner in my office and will use that for reading and meditating on God’s goodness toward me. I will also be taking a more concrete day off during the week. And I will continue checking in with my spiritual director to ensure I stay on track with those things I have promised to do to enhance my walk with God and my ministry effectiveness.”
—Ron Hosmar, pastor of youth and congregational life, Calvin CRC, Ottawa, Ontario
Practice of Engagement: Meditating on God’s Word and World
We know God through his two amazing and beautiful books: his Word and world. Meditation is the practice of paying careful attention to both. Enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we come to discover every aspect of creation as a means to know God. We begin to listen to the words of Scripture differently, not as information, but as formation and relationship. We ponder the life and teachings of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, so we may live more fully alive as he promised.
- “An excerpt from Scripture steeps in the vessel of the heart,” says Angela Josephine as she reflects on the practice of Lectio Divina. “The Holy Spirit then draws forth the flavor of one particular word or phrase to speak directly into the life of an individual. The practice’s intent is to cultivate the ability to drink deeply of the cup of Christ and to ‘hear with the ear of our hearts.’” Read more...
- Sermons. “An Ode to General Revelation” by John Witvliet invites us through nature to recognize God’s beauty and goodness. In “Set Your Minds,” John Rottman acknowledges the challenges of setting our minds on Jesus and the kingdom. The heart of meditation, says Bob Arbogast, is not the perfect environment, but desire. “Lord Jesus, speak to me. I’m listening…I want to hear you.”
- Lection Divina. This ancient Christian practice helps us listen deeply to the “living and active Word,” applying it personally to our lives. Bonhoeffer says this is a must for pastors. Lectio can be done individually or in a small group. See the RCA website for a description, along with step-by-step guidance how to do this practice. Audio Lectio: Find a guided Lectio based on the week’s lectionary gospel reading at Lectio/Active/UpperRoom.
- Novel. In her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard is an exemplar of someone who explores and contemplates nature, life, and faith.
- Book and study guide. Eugene Peterson likens Scripture meditation to a dog gnawing on a bone. For a richer understanding of Scripture meditation, Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, along with its Study Guide, is designed for small groups, with questions, activities, and prayers.
Practice of Engagement: Prayer
Prayer is both communication and communion with God. There are many different prayer forms. Ordinarily they fall into two categories: “doing prayers” and “being prayers.” Doing prayers are active. We share with God our praises, thanks, confessions, and needs. Being prayers are ones in which we’re simply present to God, enjoying his companionship. Both are important.
In our tradition, prayer has always been a significant prelude to our ministry activity. But prayer is so much more. It’s an invitation to participate in the life of the Trinity. And prayer is the means to that end.
- “The psalms confirm that we know God’s presence at all times only if we set aside certain times of prayer,” says Arthur Paul Boers. Read more in the article “Uncovering the Blessings of Fixed-Hour Prayer.”
- The Psalms.
- Praying the Hours or Fixed-Hour Prayer. This biblical practice helps us develop a healthy rhythm of work and prayer, praying at set times during the day. Mennonite pastor Arthur Paul Boers discovered this blessing following the devastating death of his sister. Check out his story and various resources to get you started. Prayer books can also assist in this. Seeking God’s Face provides a year’s worth of daily prayers and readings. A similar series of prayer books are available through Upper Room: A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants and A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God.
- Prayer of Examen. The Examen is a series of questions we ask ourselves, helping us notice God in our everyday lives. It also helps us recognize things that bring life or death to our souls. Walk through this early Christian practice with Mark Thibodeaux SJ. on this website or by using his app.
- Centering Prayer. This kind of prayer helps one learn trust, receptivity, and rest in God’s presence. After a frightening experience with stress, RCA pastor David Muyskens began to incorporate some contemplative practices in his life. He shares his story in the book Forty Days to a Closer Walk with God and mentors us in Centering Prayer. You may also enjoy this beautiful Centering Prayer Mobile App from the Catholic tradition with direction, prayers, peaceful sounds and timer.
“I used to begin workdays with sermon prep or e-mails. Some time ago that changed, and I started beginning each workday with a half-hour walk instead. During that time, I seek to listen to God and pray, both for specific leaders and members in the congregation, but also just in general for the church. I try not to overstructure this time, also creating space in which I’m open to hearing God’s voice (which can be easy for anyone, including pastors, to avoid—even if the day is filled with “church activities”). I think this practice has helped the day as a whole be less hectic, and I trust it also helps me to be following God better than simply blazing ahead with work he may not be leading me to do. It doesn’t matter how busy we are unless the Lord builds the house . . . or church.”
—Jonathan Fischer, pastor of New Hope CRC, Bangor, Maine