When Tom Melton, my friend and the senior pastor at my church, describes Jesus’ character and personality, he often has to collect himself and wipe away the tears that come so quickly. I’m riveted by those tears — they preach louder than his words. I know he loves Jesus and is captured by him. I know he’s experienced intimacy in his relationship with Jesus. And as I watch the tears roll down his cheeks, I’m drawn to Jesus.
And that’s exactly the impact teenagers are longing for — they want to be invited into our intimate relationship with Jesus. In a survey we gave to more than 15,000 Christian kids last year, three-quarters of them said they want a youth leader “whose personality and lifestyle make me want to learn more about Jesus.”
Now there’s an uncomfortable question lurking here: Does my intimacy with Jesus invite the people around me to hunger to know him better? Are your teenagers curious about Jesus because you’re so curious about him? What do people who have an obviously intimate relationship with Jesus do to nurture that? I find it magnetic, humbling, and profound that Jesus spent so much time retreating from the crowds, his friends, his family — everyone — to spend intimate time with his Father. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Jesus often proclaimed that he was “one” with his Father — that’s because he spent so much time withdrawing to “lonely places” to talk with his Father.
The fight for intimacy
When kids are drawn to Jesus because of something about us, I think they smell the fumes from our intimate encounters with him. Trouble is, life itself works against intimacy. How many truly intimate married couples do you know? Of those you do, I’d bet the million dollars I don’t have that they went to war, over and over, to fight for their intimacy.
I love this Bruce Cockburn lyric from his song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”: When you’re lovers in a dangerous time./ Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime./ But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight./ Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.
Intimacy with Jesus is a prize that will cost you everything to claim. That’s exactly why Jesus “loved” the rich young ruler by asking him to sell all his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow him. At a National Youth Ministry Conference, I heard David Nasser use this story to make the point that most of us are “Jesus-plus” people. Sure, we put Jesus on the top shelf in our life, but there’s a lot of other stuff crowding around him on that shelf (family, ministry, friends, whatever). Jesus loves us by asking for our whole heart, not some token percentage of it. He wants to be alone on that top shelf. He wants intimacy with us. But life’s currents propel us away from intimacy and toward functionally shallow relationships — we’re not top-shelf people.
Last summer God performed a “celebrity smack down” on me (he was the celebrity; I was the smack-ee). My many responsibilities as editor of GROUP, combined with some chronic health problems in my family, had sucked the life out of me. My tank was empty — I knew it, but I told myself there must be a gas station just over the next hill, so I kept rocking back and forth in the driver’s seat, nudging myself a little farther.
That’s when God vaulted off the ring stanchions and did a flying belly-flop on me.
It was a Saturday morning. My wife was sick in bed and my two little girls were anxiously pleading for me to get my act together so we wouldn’t be late for a family birthday party. They were already strapped into the car waiting in the garage. I was angry. Angry that everything was on my shoulders…again. Angry that my wife was sick — but she couldn’t help that, I told myself. Angry at my kids for wanting to be at the party on time — but they couldn’t help that, I told myself. So ultimately I was angry at myself, for having an empty tank when I was trying to merge onto my Saturday highway.
In my angry, impatient rush I hurried through the door into our garage but missed that last step. I did one of those 90-degree ankle-buckling falls with a hot latte in one hand and my laptop slung over my other shoulder. It hurt. It really, really, really hurt — so badly that I just let that scream rip from my lungs — the loudest bellow of my life. I pounded the garage floor, and let the dam burst that was holding back all my pain, frustration, and anger. My kids watched all of it, wide-eyed, like raccoons caught in the flashlight’s glare. The garage functioned like an amplifier, making my screams even louder. That’s when the new neighbors showed up — the ones I hadn’t even met yet. They’d heard my screams and rushed over to see me pounding the floor in a pool of latte. “What happened?” they cried.
Right about then my disheveled wife rushed into the garage in her robe and asked the same question. Then she looked up and saw our new neighbors standing there. “Hi, I’m Bev,” she said, pulling her robe a little tighter. Through my clenched teeth I spit out an inaudible indictment: ”What a perfect way for the new neighbors to meet us.”
Our neighbors quickly discovered our girls were supposed to be at a birthday party and offered to take them so they wouldn’t miss it. My wife gave them directions while I dragged myself into the house and hobbled to a chair so I could elevate my grapefruit ankle. My wife, who’d stayed away from me because of my aforementioned grouchy behavior, got ice for my ankle, cautiously gave me a squeeze, and left me alone.
In the silence I ran back through all of the things that had gone wrong that morning, like a prosecutor laying out the charges before the defendant. In the dock that morning was God. In the middle of my dissertation, God opened his mouth and softly said to me: “Rick, I pull the trigger.”
He didn’t have to say it twice. I knew exactly what he meant. His love is fierce and passionate and unafraid to stop me in my tracks before I do any further damage. I’m not saying he tripped me on those garage stairs, but I am saying he put me in the adult version of timeout. And in the silence, my tears came. And through the tears I felt his invitation: “Come away with me, Rick.”
Come away with me
God’s invitation to me was like a soft pillow under my tired head. I was determined to follow through. I remembered a mountain monastery I’d visited 20 years ago, when I was just out of college. They had private accommodations for personal retreats, and it was a Trappist monastery, so the monks “kept the silence” for most of the day. I emailed them to see if I could reserve one of their little stone “hermitages” — a private cottage with a little kitchen, a bathroom, and a bed. The “guest master” at the monastery told me they were booked up for months, except for two nights during the only week I could get away.
So I packed up a few clothes, a couple of books, my Bible, and a cooler with food and drove three hours to the monastery. I spent the next three days in virtual silence sitting at Jesus’ feet — just like Mary in that Mary-and-Martha story. But in my case Jesus was like a fire hydrant. It had been so long since I’d given him more than an hour or so to tell me what was on his mind that he had a lot to say. It was rich, oh-so-rich. I found myself again in his goodness, in his surprising, wild, attractive presence. I came away to the quiet with him, like a midlife couple on a second honeymoon. I can still smell the stillness…the fragrance of his presence and the sweet sound of his voice.
When I returned from the monastery, I told my friend Bob Krulish — director of the pastoral staff at my church — all about my smack down. Later that day he sent me this note:
“Rick, I know Thursdays are not good days for you, but I go down to the Mount St. Francis retreat center north of Colorado Springs each month for ‘a day with the Lord.’ Usually some elders and staff go as well, and I would love to have you join us. If you can’t come with us, I sure would encourage you to put it on your schedule–at a time that would fit you. You are wired to hear from the Lord, and stopping everything for a day would catapult you in terms of intimacy. Just a thought and offer!”
Reading this note again reminds me all over why I love Bob so much and why he’s had such a profound impact on my life. It’s a perfect melding of respect, invitation, and admonishment. He’s challenging me to get past my attachment to the “small story” of my life and, in faith, invest in the “bigger story” of my life. He’s inviting me to “come to the quiet,” where intimacy with Jesus has a fighting chance. It makes so much simple sense that going away to lonely places to pay attention to God would “catapult you in terms of intimacy,” cleaning up your “mirror” a little more so teenagers can see Jesus reflected in you.
Now, your lonely place doesn’t have to be a monastery (but it could) or a retreat center (but it could), but it does have to be a place that’s lonely. I mean, we’re fooling ourselves if we think our intimacy with God is deepened by shouting at each other over the din of everyday life — like two side-by-side motorcyclists on the freeway. Jesus went away to lonely places–and away meant someplace outside the sphere of his demanding public responsibilities. Your lonely place could be your garage or your basement or your son’s treehouse — as long as it’s a place you can guarantee a large chunk of uninterrupted time.
And when Scripture records that Jesus “often” went away to lonely places, it’s emphasizing that this was a normal, rhythmic part of his life. Listen, no one who ever lived had more reason to maximize his time — think of the number of people not healed or not freed from demons or not drawn into the kingdom of God because Jesus so often left them to be alone with his Father. To be mentored by Jesus is to pay attention to his habits — and going to lonely places was one of his primary habits.
I can’t really “afford” to take an entire day away every month to waste time with God — it’s a lavish extravagance that my deadlines, my co-workers, my wife, my girls, and my friends pay for. But I’m like a toddler at church who feels so proud when he puts a dollar bill into the offering plate — the only reason I have a dollar to give is because my dad gave it to me.
We’ll have no “good treasure” to give teenagers unless we get it from the source of all treasures in our intimate lonely place encounters with him.
4 ways to fuel intimacy with Jesus
How can we come to the quiet in ways that fit well into our life? Here are four ideas:
1. Come away with Jesus to a lonely place, every month. Our biggest faith battle is remembering to remember God. For most of us it’s easy to forget about Jesus in our everyday life, unless we’re in some kind of trouble. Then we have no trouble remembering him. But we can remember to remember him without the leverage of desperation if we’ll simply establish a come to the quiet habit — once a month, one day away. The idea is to have no contact or conversation with others during the course of the day. If you’re ready for that, here are three ways to do it:
• Ask your senior pastor or other church staffers for suggestions about retreat centers or even private homes where you can spend a day away. You want a place that’s comfortable, but has few distractions.
• Most Catholic churches are hard-wired to offer private, secluded places for reflection. Call the Catholic church in your town and ask if such a place exists nearby.
• Go online to find a retreat center near your location. These two sites may lead you to the Promised Land:
— Retreats Online — www.retreatsonline.com. Click on the map, and then on your state, to find a nearby center.
— Christian Camp and Conference Association — www.ccca.org. Use the “Quick Search” box to find locations in your state.
2. Look for “come away with me” moments in the bustle of your everyday life. In every good marriage, there are three kinds of connections — the everyday “on the fly” ways we relate, the “lunch break” ways we relate, and the “come away with me” ways we relate. All are important in our “God marriage.” And I want to make sure I don’t devalue the everyday, every-moment ways we relate with God. In fact, it’s this connection that most often makes my intimate relationship with God spill out and splash others. My “on the fly” relationship with God is fueled by two things:
• Talk with God about everything, not just some things. I call this the “parking space prayer” principle. You know how we look down on praying for parking spaces as a trivial, self-centered way of “using” God? I think just the opposite — God is at least as passionately interested in the details of my life as my wife is, so if my focus is riveted on getting a good parking space for some reason, why wouldn’t I talk to God about that? If you’re in conversation about the small things of life, you’ll drag “the quiet” into the noise of your life.
• See life through the lens of parable. This essential practice is to live awake, with a mind-set that assumes God is planting parables all around me, all the time. No matter what the experience, God is speaking through it somehow. He’ll speak to me through them if I’ll just pay attention.
For example, I’m writing this at home right now, and my wife just let out a shriek because the chili she’s cooking for friends tonight burned a little on the bottom. I ran out to the kitchen to see what happened and found her disgusted with herself for not remembering to stir the pot. Instead of blowing by this attention-getting event as if it were a neutral moment, I listen for God’s voice.
Right now I pause to ask God what parable he might be telling through this experience. Here’s what I “hear”: “Sin burns my soul, and if I ignore it and leave it on the ‘burner’ long enough, that burned taste will infiltrate the whole pot.” Fortunately for us, and our guests tonight, my wife pulled that pot off as soon as she got a whiff of that burning smell. We were able to salvage the rest of the chili. “Keep short accounts with me.” That’s what God is trying to tell me. So I stop and thank him for that.
The key is to stay awake to your life and pay attention to what God is trying to say to you. Sometimes I think his voice is like radio waves: He’s always speaking, but we’re not always tuned in.Click to tweet
To tune in, you can do two things:
• Stop during your lunch break or while you’re exercising or on the drive home and simply notice you’re environment — what sticks out to you? For example, I noticed a glider soaring in a big circle above me the other day. That was unusual, so I paid attention to it for about 30 seconds. Then I asked God to show me if he was somehow trying to speak to me through the glider — as a parable. What he “said” back to me was this: Once the glider is separated from a power source (the airplane that towed it into the atmosphere), it was only a matter of time before it returned to the ground. And that’s a lot like my life — I can distance myself from Jesus and keep going on the “fumes” of my relationship with him for a while, but I’m still headed for the ground.
• Pay attention to what captures your attention. Sometimes you don’t have to go looking for parables; they intrude into your life. For example, the burned chili incident intruded into my day and demanded my attention. When something like that happens, I stop and ask God if he’s trying to say something through the parable of that intrusion.
3. Embrace the Bono within. Your intimacy with Jesus will grow when you share your encounters with him more often. Here’s what I mean. I think Bono, lead singer for U2, is a great example of someone who takes every opportunity to drag his relationship with Jesus into his “public square.” In every interview, in most songs, and in his public comments, Jesus is always lurking there.
So the idea is to create a tunnel between your intimate times with God so what he’s pouring into you goes through you rather than stops with you. This is about verbalizing whatever God is doing in you — or saying to you — today. In my case, this transition was as simple as turning on a spigot — I just decided to drag into the light the conversations, insights, and learnings that pepper my everyday relationship with God and share them with the people in my life. I trick my brain into thinking that what happens in my relationship with God is as conversational as what happens in my relationship with my wife, so I talk about him just as naturally.
So I don’t just talk about my wife burning the chili; I talk with others about what God showed me through the burnt chili. And the more I do this, the more my intimacy with him is fueled. That’s because I’m reinforcing my intimate times with Jesus — even celebrating them — by telling others about them. And the more we talk about the ones we love, the more our love for them is stoked.
4. Make adoration part of your daily habit. The celebrated Christian writer Henri Nouwen served for years as pastor of Daybreak, a Christian community near Toronto for developmentally disabled people that was planted by the L’Arche movement. He wrote this about the co-founder of the L’Arche community in the United States, Father George Strohmeyer — it’s a profound statment about our mission:
“This morning I had a chance to speak with him [Father Strohmeyer] about his experience of being a priest for L’Arche. He told me about his ’conversion,’ the main causes behind his more radical turn to Jesus. As he told his story, it became clear that Jesus was at the center of his life. George has always come to know Jesus with a depth, a richness that few priests have experienced. When he pronounces the name of Jesus you know that he speaks from a deep, intimate encounter. Since his ’conversion,’ his life has become simpler, more hidden, more rooted, more trusting, more open, more evangelical, and more peaceful. For George, being a priest at L’Arche means leading people always closer to Jesus.
“I know for sure that there is a long and hard journey ahead of me. It is the journey of leaving everything behind for Jesus’ sake. I now know that there is a way of living, praying, being with people, caring, eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, and writing in which Jesus is truly the center. I know this way exists and that I have not fully found it yet.
“How do I find it? George gave me the answer: ‘Be faithful in your adoration.’ He did not say ‘prayer,’ or ‘meditation,’ or ‘contemplation.’ He kept using the word adoration, worship. This word makes it clear that all my attention must be on Jesus, not on myself. To adore is to be drawn away from my own preoccupations into the presence of Jesus. It means letting go of what I want, desire, or have planned, and fully trusting Jesus and his love” (from Nouwen’s memoir The Road to Daybreak).
If we lived in the spirit of what Nouwen discovered in Strohmeyer’s life, we’d study the Bible and pray with a passionate quest to find things we adore about Jesus and marinate in them. It’s the process we go through when we write our spouse or our “significant other” a Valentine’s Day card. We’re thinking through what we adore about that person and writing it down. When we’re caught up in the pursuit and adoration of Jesus, we’ll live, breathe, and move in the spirit of the first disciples — the same ones who started to believe if they told a mountain to pick itself up and move, it would.
Portions of this article were adapted from Rick Lawrence’s book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry (Group).
Come to the Quiet Resources
Here’s a sampler of some of my favorite resources–books and music–that draw me into intimacy with Jesus:
• The Wind From the Stars, a collection of writings by George MacDonald. C.S. Lewis once said of MacDonald: “I regard him as my master…I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ himself.” I’ve been using this little book for almost 20 years in my quiet times. It’s so brimming with truth that it’s an almost inexhaustible “well of intimacy” for me.
• Windows of the Soul by Ken Gire. This is the book I took with me on my monastery “come away with me” sojourn. It was the perfect companion for long stretches of silence. It’s a beautifully written invitation to an intimate relationship with Jesus.
• Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller. Miller wrote the breakthrough, mega-popular book Blue Like Jazz, and that’s how most people know him. But I tell everyone I know about this book. It starts like a locomotive that’s at a standstill — the wheels churn away for the first chapter or two, but the train doesn’t seem to be moving. By the end of the book, Miller hits me like a speeding train — so profound and beautiful in the way he describes relational intimacy with God.
• Love and Thunder by Andrew Peterson. This album is my favorite by a Christian artist. It’s a collection of songs that describes the everyday intimacies of a relationship with Jesus, and I can’t listen to it without tears in my eyes.
• Arriving by Chris Tomlin. This is my all-time favorite worship album, by a musician who really understands the beauty of intimacy with Christ. I think the song “How Great Is Our God” is the best love song to God ever recorded.