June 1, 2008
 Listening to God
Why It Helps to Be Moving
    
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In his Chronicles, Volume One, Bob Dylan reflects on the setting that he believes best enables him and others to compose music. It is one, he explains, that is anything but stationary:

“You can write a song anywhere, in a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback--it helps to be moving.” He adds, “Sometimes people who have the greatest talent for writing songs never write any because they are not moving.”*

Dylan makes this observation--that musical inspiration best comes when one is “moving”--deep into his book, just in passing, and doesn’t elaborate further. Yet it gripped my interest, and on a broader level, for I’ve often sensed that our most important insights about life and personal challenges tend to come when we’re in motion. Think about your own experience: Recall those welcome times when the answer to a pressing decision or problem suddenly became clear. I will guess the majority of them occurred when you were on a trip, or running an errand, or taking a walk. It’s less likely they happened when you were stationary--sitting at home, or busy with your normal routine at work.

I’ve long been intrigued that many of the most important epiphanies of the great heroes of Scripture occurred when they were traveling. The stunning revelations Abraham experienced, for instance--when God revealed that he would be the father of many nations--took place only after he left his hometown of Haran and “went out, not knowing whither he went” (Heb 11:8 KJV).

Or consider Jacob’s experience. For long periods of his life, he was stuck in one place--first Canaan, then Haran for twenty years, then Canaan again for a lengthy period until, in old age, he moved to Egypt. He grew increasingly sedentary as life moved on, and, it would appear, increasingly depressed. Scripture, though, notes six instances when God gave Jacob a cherished, direct revelation. Four occurred at those rare times when Jacob was traveling and moving from one location to another (Gen 28:10-22; 32:22-30; 35:9-15; 46:1-4 ); he had a dramatic encounter with God in each case, and received profound assurance of God’s blessing and protection.

On Jacob’s other two occasions of direct revelation, God told him that he should travel. God advised him to move from Haran back to Canaan in one case (Gen 31:3, 10-13), and then later, instructed him to visit Bethel, where Jacob had previously encountered God (Gen 35:1). In both of these instances, it’s likely that Jacob was seriously considering making the trip God told him to undertake. The anticipation of traveling, then, may have prepared him psychologically for the revelation he received.

And--Genesis notes a further occasion when angels appeared to Jacob, though no mention is made of them or God speaking to Jacob in this case (Gen 32:1-2). Yet Jacob was clearly elated by this encounter, and took great reassurance from it. It also occurred when he was . . . traveling!--on his trip from Haran back home to Canaan. “Jacob . . . went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named that place Mahanaim’” (Gen 32:1-2).

We find many examples like these of Abraham and Jacob throughout Scripture, where individuals received vital guidance or reassurance from God while they were either on a trip or at its destination.

The Insight of Proverbs

Of even greater interest are two passages in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs speaks extensively about the wisdom God gives us for resolving decisions and problems, and of how critical it is for us to seek it. The individual proverbs note many practical steps we can take to gain wisdom, and often compare wise actions with foolish ones. Two passages in Proverbs, though, advise us about the setting in which we’re most likely to gain wise insight. And in both cases, we’re told that it’s one in which we’re on the go:

Proverbs 1:20-21: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”

Proverbs 8:1-3: “Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud.”

Wisdom is personified in these passages (and here only in Proverbs)--as a voice offering insight to the receptive person. Does this mean we are likely to hear an audible voice responding if we ask for God’s guidance? I doubt it. Nowhere in the rest of Proverbs, or anywhere else in Scripture, is it taught that we should expect to hear a supernatural voice revealing God’s will. The continual message of Proverbs is that wisdom comes from our diligent, practical effort to attain it.

Yet we also enjoy harvest experiences in seeking wisdom, when we suddenly have a burst of wise insight, and see the answer to a problem or decision that has confounded us. These moments can come with such great impact that we feel as though we’ve experienced a divine revelation. We may be inclined to say that God has spoken to us at such times. Undoubtedly, it is this sort of experience that the writer has in mind in these passages, when he mentions wisdom speaking and raising her voice.

What the writer is clearly saying, is that these episodes of enlightenment will most likely take place when we’re on trips or errands. We might expect to read the opposite: that they will occur when we’re sitting quietly at home thinking or praying. But while Scripture doesn’t rule out that possibility, these passages suggest that our most profound insights will probably come when we’re away from home and on our way somewhere.

What this “being on our way” involves is the most fascinating part. That it may include major travel is evident when the writer refers to wisdom speaking “on the heights beside the way” and “at the crossroads.” But he also mentions wisdom speaking “in the markets,” “at the head of the noisy streets,” and “at the entrance of the city gates.” We may enjoy a blessed moment of enlightenment, in other words, on our short trips--such as for shopping or social purposes! On these trips, or at these destinations, we’re in a special position to experience a personal epiphany.

The fact that moving about in our normal business of the day can boost our receptivity to God’s wisdom is extraordinarily encouraging. It brings purpose to the mundane traveling we constantly have to do, and a basis for anticipating something special’s happening on such trips. It just might be that on a drive to the mall or the doctor’s office we suddenly see a matter clearly that’s been baffling us.

These passages from Proverbs even lead us to believe that God might surprise us with life-changing guidance when we’re--heaven forbid--commuting. The reference to wisdom speaking in the “noisy streets” seems even more divinely inspired for our own time than for when the passage was written!

Why It Helps to Be in Motion

The writer of these proverbs doesn’t tell us why we can be so open to enlightenment when we’re “out and about,” but I suspect that several reasons contribute. For one, when we’re on a trip or an errand to a destination we want to reach, we tend to be more optimistic than usual. We’re also more relaxed, and in more of a right-brain mode. In these states, our mind is more likely to think creatively and make positive connections between the myriad of details we’re mulling over. The solution to a difficult decision or problem may suddenly become plain.

Usually, too, we’re more physically invigorated when we’re traveling than when we’re sitting still at home or at the office. This was certainly true for people in biblical times, who for transportation relied on walking or bumpy rides on horses, mules, or camels. With better circulation comes better thinking.

And, as we move along on a trip, our eyes are continually exposed to new sights. This rapid change in visual detail can stimulate our mind to process other information more quickly and effectively.

Perhaps most important--and most simply--traveling breaks the inertia for us. If we’re stuck and unable to resolve a problem or decision, anything we do to get our body moving helps to get our mind moving as well.

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance that traveling has played in my own experience of Christ’s guidance. The decision to launch Sons of Thunder, and the solution to major problems related to it, came during a visit to Rehoboth Beach in summer 1966, when I was driving the ocean highway between Rehoboth and Ocean City, Maryland. My conclusion to marry Evie Kirkland was reached while I was driving from the Maryland town of Mt. Airy to Damascus, where we now live. I discovered the home we presently live in while on a leisurely drive in upper Montgomery County, Maryland, to pray about the matter of finding a new home. Countless ideas for writing have come while I’m driving as well. My mind always seems to work better then, and my heart seems more receptive to the Lord’s inspiration.

Motion vs. Stillness

This isn’t to say that God only guides us when we’re in motion. There is a vital place for stillness in the Christian life. Jesus instructed his disciples, “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt 6:5). He encouraged them to seek this privacy, in part, to avoid prideful public displays of devotion, but also, I’m sure, to remove distractions. We can have too much movement in our life--to say the least. The pace of life is so frantic for some of us, that we need to heed the timeless counsel of Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

Yet what contributes to stillness differs greatly for each of us. Jesus himself often retreated to the Garden of Gethsemane for meditation, where he may well have spent more time walking than sitting. While I do plenty of praying at home, I have to be walking around the house to do it; I can’t pray sitting for long without losing my focus or dozing off.

One highly respected Christian leader, Dr. Richard Halverson, confessed to me that chaos and distractions actually helped him focus better. He could just as easily have a deep devotional time sitting in a subway station as in his home study.

Each of us has a need to find the right balance between stillness and movement in our life, and to find what circumstances best help us to enjoy peaceful reflection and to focus effectively in prayer.

If we’ve been Christian for any time, though, we’ve heard plenty of emphasis on the importance of being quiet and still before the Lord. We understand quite well our need to do this. Yet we’ve probably heard little or no stress on the spiritual value of being on the go. The fact that being in motion can boost our receptivity to God is unspeakably encouraging, for the simple reason that so much of our life involves being in transit.

Practical Implications

Most of us can learn to benefit much more than we do from this remarkable life principle. Here are several steps that can help:

If your life involves plenty of traveling, make a practice of reminding yourself before each trip, whether short or long, that being on the road may help you better understand God’s guidance for some important matter. If there’s a decision you’re facing, or a problem you’re trying to solve, pray at least briefly that God will enlighten you on this matter while you travel. Then, take some time while you’re on your way to pray or just reflect; if you’re driving, turn off the radio, CD player and cell phone for at least part of the trip. Enjoy the quiet, and be open to inspiration. Not every trip will bring the epiphany of a lifetime, to be sure, and many will pass without dramatic enlightenment occurring. But on occasion, a welcome insight will emerge that makes the whole effort worthwhile.

Commuting can aid our spiritual openness in the same ways other travel does. I say can, for commuting involves a different routine for each of us. You are more likely to be in the mood for inspiration if your trip to work is a quiet train ride or a pleasant country drive, than if you’re sitting in a carpool van with five other people and talk radio blaring. And if aggravating traffic tie-ups are common in your drive to work, you’ll find it harder to maintain a devotional spirit.

But--simply be open. When you set forth on your commute to work, you’re leaving home, breaking the inertia, and getting yourself on the move. You’re doing things that may position you better to listen to God. Be open to his surprising you with special insight as you commute, and expect the best in your trips to and from work.

If your life has grown--to be honest--too sedentary, do what you can to put more movement into it. Remember the potential spiritual value of any traveling you do, including simple jaunts like shopping trips. Take a leisurely drive for the purpose of praying, reflecting, and seeking a better understanding of God’s direction. Or take a walk or bike ride for the same purpose.

But what if you’re disabled and have limited ability to get around? You are not at a disadvantage in listening to God in this case--most definitely not. God works with each of us in light of our capabilities, and meets us where we are (that is the message of Christ’s incarnation, that God comes to us where we are!). What mobility you do have will work for you, so make the best of it. And take heart that God will compensate for your disability in numerous ways, including his means of guiding you.

A personal retreat can be an outstanding way to reap the very best spiritual benefits of traveling and escaping life’s normal distractions. At least once a year, plan a time--an afternoon, a day or two, or longer--for concentrating exclusively on your relationship with Christ and his guidance for you. Spend your personal retreat in a quiet setting away from home, where you are not likely to be interrupted. And remember that your trip to and from your retreat destination is part of the adventure; it may even be the time when your most treasured insights come!

Finally, exercise can provide us some of the same benefits for spiritual inspiration that traveling often does. Exercise--to say the obvious--gets our blood circulating, breaks the inertia and gets us moving. And, as we’ve noted, travel in biblical times usually involved some form of exercise.

I recently read a stunning account of how Nikola Tesla invented the AC induction engine. As a young Serbian student, Tesla had wrestled with the concept of this motor for several years while studying in Paris. But he couldn’t solve the technical problems that had long confounded other inventors, and a professor publicly ridiculed him for even imagining such an engine could be developed. Overworked and exhausted, Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown. A friend then convinced Tesla to begin exercising for the health benefits. While Tesla and his friend were on their workout routine one afternoon, they wandered into a city park; at that point, the engine’s design suddenly became crystal clear to Tesla.

“I drew with a stick in the sand. . . . The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal and stone, so much that I told [my friend], ‘See my motor here; watch me reverse it.’ I cannot begin to describe my emotions.”*

It wasn’t until about a decade later that Tesla finally gained the financial backing and resources to build his motor. Until then, he merely carried its design in his mind and never wrote it down, unflinchingly convinced it would work. His conviction proved bullet-proof accurate: once built, his motor performed flawlessly. During his lifetime, Tesla saw it become accepted as the standard for electric motors throughout the world. It vastly improved production for every major industry, and (Tesla’s primary dream) alleviated the burdens of countless people in their daily tasks. Today, if you’ve eaten food from your refrigerator, used an electric shaver, enjoyed the benefits of air-conditioning, driven your car, or filled a glass with water simply by turning on a faucet, you’ve benefited profoundly from the epiphany of a young student exercising in a Paris park on a blustery February afternoon in 1882.

I mention Tesla’s experience because exercising seems to have given him an edge that helped him achieve the creative inspiration of a lifetime. His was an astounding experience, I believe, of divine inspiration--given to one who, as a near-candidate for the priesthood, certainly understood it and was undoubtedly seeking it.

Guidance as a Moving Experience

I’m not suggesting that exercise or travel will necessarily open any of us to such an insight that changes the world. But it may open us more fully to inspiration from God that changes our life, or that helps us realize our potential in important ways. If you are looking forward to a vacation trip this summer, anticipate it not only as a time of leisure, but as one when God may break through with guidance that you greatly need. And make a habit of seeing daily travel and exercise as an opportunity to think more clearly, with the mind of Christ, about your life.

And, as you study Scripture, be alert to the many examples of those who received critical inspiration from the Lord while they were on the move. We see time and again how simply getting ourselves in motion can make all the difference.
    

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