disengaging spiritual auto-pilot

yesterday morning in church, a woman was sharing a stunning, vulnerable personal story; and in response to her trusting us (trusting me, since i was part of the audience) with her raw emotional honesty, i was moved. i mean: i felt. i choked up a little, and experienced a short visceral engagement. and in that, i noticed something.

i think i’ve been on spiritual auto-pilot for a month or so, all through lent and easter. funny thing is: i didn’t realize it until now.

i’ve been coasting. i’ve been moving through life, checking off to-do items (all of which i enjoyed, for the most part). i even had a 9 day vacation with my family, which had almost nothing to do with to-do items; but, in hindsight, i can see that all i did was throttle back, leaving the auto-pilot engaged.

my response at the moment isn’t guilt. i find that to be mostly useless, and new initiatives merely born out of a response to guilt are almost always nicely veneered legalism. instead, my response feels like: oops.

i engaged my spiritual auto-pilot seasonally when i was working in churches. in fact, i think these easter seasons were often a major time for the toggle switch to be tripped. my role was always frenetic, with the combination of whole-church expectations and youth ministry programs (i normally lead some sort of short term missions trip over spring break), and i have often found (maybe this is just my wiring) that during times of scheduled intensity, i don’t allow myself space for self-reflection, or presence and stillness, for emotional engagement.

funny thing is: in my world these days, spring break and easter are just the opposite of that historical busy-ness. my 6th grade guys small group had a two week break. my work, once spring break actually hit, was mostly put on hold (though my kids and i did finish writing a book over our time on vacation). i hardly ever used an alarm clock to wake up over the last two weeks. but i still fell into the auto-pilot pattern.

i know the party line for re-engagement. i taught it for years, back in the day. discipline. yup, ramp up the discipline to take steps toward vibrancy.

but as i’ve grown older, and more honest with myself, i know that’s not the answer for me. i don’t want to make a panacea declaration here, because for some, discipline might be exactly what’s called for. but for me, i’ve found that a steroid shot of discipline moves me into a hollow repetition. it treats my soul like just another item on my to-do list. and that, i’ve found, doesn’t take me where i really want to go, which is into the arms of jesus.

instead, the best way i’ve found to trip the fuse on the auto-pilot is to engage my emotions. it’s in my emotions that i find jesus waiting, patiently, saying, “yup, i’ve been here all along, waiting for the moment you would return.”

there’s a noticing that comes first, i suppose:

  • noticing the beauty in the complexity or simplicity of a musical composition.
  • stopping to take note of the verdant green bursting forth in my backyard, the amazing purple of the wisteria blossoms outside my office door, or the pink glory of the wall of bougainvillea on the path to our laundry room (a.k.a. ‘the garage’).
  • hearing the thumping joy of experimentation passing easily through our walls as max (on drums) and his 8th grade bandmates (on guitar and bass) pound out a song they’re inventing.
  • noticing the tiredness or pain or hope in the eyes of someone i’m meeting with.

but the noticing isn’t quite enough in and of itself. i have to choose to allow myself to feel something in the moment of noticing. and those feelings, that’s when things start to click. that’s when i start to feel vibrancy return, start to feel my soul wake up from it’s auto-pilot slumber.

does this make sense to anyone else? have any of you been almost crushed–or at least drained–by the expectations and pace of this past ministry season? is there something in the noticing and feeling that could reset your soul?

7 thoughts on “disengaging spiritual auto-pilot”

  1. Speaking as one who has had to go through extensive recovery from auto-pilot I know exactly what you are talking about. I’ve led in numerous settings and whether the church is big or small it conditions leaders to stuff and ignore feelings.

    The problem with this is that part of our Imago Dei is our emotions. They are clues and messengers to the depth of our being conformed to Christ’s image. I don’t know how many days I’ve had to stop and say: “I have emotions. What do I feel right now?” And this approach to living opens up so much beauty and potential .

  2. definitely makes sense…we often forget that part of the statement, “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” is the word enjoy…if that’s too Piper-y for you, try Ecclesiastes, eat, drink and be merry is totally biblical (repeated several times in the book) as long as we remember that it’s tied to and finds it’s Chapter 11/12’s Remember your Creator. Discipline is a great tool unless it’s getting in the way of the enjoy and remember parts.

    and kudos on spelling bougainvillea correctly!

  3. oops, lost part of my thought above

    “…finds it’s value and meaning in Chapter 11/12’s…”

  4. mark, your struggles with coasting have connected with me. I feel almost emotionally dead with my relationship with the Lord; with the church; with the Holy Spirit. I am pleading, what on earth is wrong with me??????

  5. I was there a month ago. Just being released from my last job without the next one in place left me spiritually numb. I was still in the Word (occasionally if I’m honest), but when Easter hit without a church machine to prod me on, I woke up to GOD!

  6. no joke, i was going to blog about almost exactly the same thing this morning. thanks for sharing man, it’s good to know that i’m not alone with auto-pilot!

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