It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that 3 festivals in 8 days is perhaps a bit much. Everyone has their own kind of 'busy' but for me the last couple of weeks have involved preaching a lot (1,000 people in a cathedral, 2,000 people in a circus tent, and 30,000 in a couple of fields), with loads of meetings behind the scenes, hundreds of emails, poor diet (basically chocolate, curry, crisps and gallons of coffee), crowd-surfing a sheep, and inadequate sleep (sorry mum).
The lull after any storm (and yours doesn’t have to look like mine) is one of the most vulnerable and dangerous times in anyone’s life. One famous pastor locks himself alone in a darkened basement for a few days after every preaching tour. To me that sounds... a bit mad.
I’ve lost count of the number of friends who’ve been on the verge of making terrible life-decisions during the vertigo-drop from a spiritual high. The late, great British renewal leader David Watson once confessed that he sometimes drove away from week-long missions in which hundreds had given their lives to Christ, questioning the very existence of God.
Over the years I have developed 3 simple rules to help me navigate these lulls without doing anything too stupid:
- Go slow
- Go low
- Go steady
1. Go slow.
You’ve been operating at an unsustainable speed, your engine is screaming and it's time to change gear. God does not have ADHD. He’s not a workaholic. He’s the most relaxed being in the universe.
On the seventh day, we are told, God rested.
God enjoyed his creation. He paused to admire the fruit of his labour. Rabbi Abraham Heschel observes that, while other ancient religions hallowed particular places and things, the Jews alone hallowed time. We are commanded to keep the sabbath. It has to be planned carefully, and guarded jealously (I’ve not been too good at this these past few weeks). There are external pressures that make it hard to slow down, but also an internal drive to maintain the buzz of self-importance that comes with busyness.
2. Go low.
After feeding the five thousand we are told that Jesus was tired and withdrew to a lonely place. The crowd must have been clamouring for more - singing his praises. But instead of seizing the moment and capitulating to their demands he withdrew very deliberately for a night of solitude and a fishing trip with his closest friends. Jesus wasn’t just resting from busyness, he was also retreating from the spotlight.
After any kind of high, it’s easy to show off, to be impatient if we are tired, or to feel 'entitled' so that we spoil ourselves in ways that are not healthy. It was when King David had won all his battles, that he fell into sin with Bathsheba.
The quietness after a busy season is essential for quiet reflection. To do this I will often take a long walk with Sammy, or we’ll go for coffee, and she will kindly, patiently let me talk. Journaling can also be a great tool in this period for capturing learning, and giving thanks to God.
3. Go steady.
The lull after a storm is a very bad time indeed for making big decisions. Don’t quit your job, question your faith, or say too much on social media. Don’t take any of your emotions too seriously for at least three days. It’s completely normal to feel quite low, a bit flat, or even depressed - there are physiological reasons for this. I’ve come to expect these emotions and to welcome them as a sign that my body is finally detoxing from an overdose of adrenaline.
After his triumph on Mount Carmel, Elijah felt like this.
“He prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life.’
A little later Elijah informs God that he is the only prophet left, which isn’t even remotely true. It’s easy to loose perspective, to get isolated, to get lost in self-pity and self-importance (which are really the same thing) when we are exhausted. God’s response to Elijah is exquisitely practical. He ignores his moaning and just tells his servant to eat and sleep. And then, after a couple of days rest, God finally speaks, but only in a gentle whisper.
It is often the case that the Lord comes particularly close in the lull after the storm when we are exhausted. He ‘leads us beside quiet waters, he makes us lie down in green pastures, he restores our weary souls.’
The Irish priest John O’Donohue says it beautifully in one of my favourite poems -
A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted:
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.