I’ve served as an evangelical pastor for thirty years. My calling came as the direct result of discovering God’s love in Jesus when I was seventeen. In my early years, like a lot of teens, I was desperately seeking to discover my sense of worth. Sadly, as often happens, my personal worth was directly tied to how my peers responded to me—to my looks, my personality and my performance. It was only by God’s grace that I was introduced to the reality of God’s love just before my senior year. All that year I prayed a single prayer before heading off to school:
“God, help me to see myself as you do.”
The fruit of this prayer changed me and set the stage for what my adult life would become. Over the years my understanding of God’s love has deepened immensely. Yet, in ways I couldn’t comprehend, I retained a significant need to perform and prove myself. This become surprisingly clear to me when, sixteen months ago, I found myself in an unexpected place. My wife and I had just finished getting our five kids launched, and my wife received an unmistakable call to serve God in a new city. In theory this was a great idea! I could support her call and slip into an anonymous state, enjoying some much- needed rest. So we sold our family home and bought a little bungalow in Pasadena.
Within weeks of landing I found myself feeling agitated. What was this as I sat alone in our new back yard? I’d enjoyed silent retreats over the years! So I went looking for a spiritual director to help me sort it out. Actually, I started with three directors. God knew I needed more than one session each month in these difficult early days. Also, I’d arrived into this new season knowing it was “right” for me to receive training in spiritual direction. Somehow I knew this was God’s gift and call for me at this time. I’d registered for a certain training program in Los Angeles before arriving. But by God’s grace I was led to CenterQuest’s School of Spiritual Direction soon after landing. By the end of the fall of 2014, after my first months, I knew this was God’s mysterious gift.
We began unwrapping this gift by spending an entire week focusing on how God feels about us—how we ARE God’s beloved. I learned the truth that the words God spoke over Jesus at his baptism capture the essence of how God feels about every one of us: “YOU are my beloved child!” Just as the Father spoke these words over Jesus BEFORE Jesus had healed one person or given one teaching, God also sees us as God’s beloved—no matter what we’ve done or ever will do! This truth set the tone for what my entire year would become. Along the way I had to face my dualistic, critical and judgmental tendencies that are rooted in my hidden need to prove my worth. And even though I had believed in my need for God’s mercy, and I’d experienced God’s mercy in tremendous ways, I had not unearthed the ugly depths of my “works-based” ways.
One of the most important moments from this past year’s training happened on one of my many prayer hikes in the San Gabriel mountains. On this particular hike I was focusing on “hearing” and “seeing” all things as God does. I hiked to the top of a mountain and spent time resting in God’s presence. On my way down, as the sun was setting, I became aware of fears rising within me. I was suddenly aware that mountain lions lived in this place and I was vulnerably alone in the increasing darkness. So I hiked faster, and faster!
Then, all of sudden, I was aware of God’s speaking voice within: “I’m all around you. You’re safe. Slow down and pay attention.” So I slowed down and listened. Suddenly I was VERY aware of God’s presence in the creation that surrounded me. I became so overwhelmed that I had to stop. As I looked at the young trees standing over me, embracing me, I sensed God saying through them, “I love you, Michael, and am very pleased with you, just as you are.” As I heard these words a wonderful shiver ran through me. I stood motionless, hoping not to break this intimate moment of being held by God.
Then, before too long, the embrace of God’s presence lifted. As I reflect on the immeasurable gifts received over these past months, my hope is to continually grow in my awareness of how God feels about me so I can increasingly live this reality and more easily give this reality away to all people—the gift of God’s amazing and merciful grace!
My name is Mike Harbert. I live in Pasadena, CA with my wife, Laura. Our five kids (of our blended family) are just launched. I’m a Presbyterian pastor of 30 years. Most recently I’ve enjoyed a year-long sabbatical, receiving training in spiritual direction through CenterQuest. I’m passionate about living into what is true about myself through contemplative prayer practices so the Loving God can continually heal and transform me. I’m also passionate about companioning others who desire this sacred journey.