One of the hardest things about a recent discouraging stretch was the way proven spiritual practices completely broke down for me. When I prayed, I felt nothing. When I read the Bible, it might as well have been Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Everything seemed flat. This really worried me, not so much that I couldn’t connect with God but that my tried-and-true methods for connecting with him had fallen apart. Initially I appreciated the value of divine silence, but after a while I grew fearful. I continually wondered at the time, “God, why can’t I feel you?”
Then something completely unrelated happened: businesses in the area of our church office started complaining about the area saloon. Years before I moved to town, a local businessman had opened an old-fashioned drinking-and pool-playing saloon. This wasn’t your trendy twenty-something socialite nightclub. People got in fights at this place. Beer bottles were left in the parking lot, and the police were frequently called late at night. Over time a groundswell of support to oust the saloon mounted. Even though our church was not involved in the complaints, I feared that the saloon’s owners and employees would assume we were responsible because our church office was located just a few hundred yards away. I felt I needed to do something, not so much to show them our support, but to show them a simple act of Christian love.
I was sharing my concern with a friend from the church when suddenly I had an idea.
“I’ve got it. Let’s clean their toilets!”
My friend looked at me and said, “Dude, are you nuts?”
“Come along and let’s find out.”
We grabbed two buckets and all the church’s cleaning supplies, walked down to the saloon, and opened the front door. I spotted a bartender at the counter and introduced myself.
“We’re from the church down the street and wanted to know if we could clean your restrooms.”
“Is this one of those hidden-camera TV shows?” the bartender asked.
I assured him it wasn’t. Then I explained that we were aware of the current backlash against the saloon from others in the community and that we just wanted to show them God’s love.
He pointed to the restrooms and said, “Knock yourself out.”
Have you ever been in the restroom of a saloon? Not the cleanest place in the world! Hair, bottles, and vomit covered the floor. I took the toilets and my friend took the floor and sink. As we scrubbed the place down, the saloon employees opened the door to see what we were doing and yelled back to their buddies, “You weren’t kidding. I can’t believe it!” The smell of the place almost made me vomit. Human feces were caked all over the toilet and on the walls. I felt bad for my friend; I had talked him into coming, but he served as joyously as if he were singing on our worship team. An hour and a half later, when we were finished, we walked out into the bar drenched in sweat and thanked the bartender for the opportunity to serve.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that ninety-minute germ-fest brought me closer to God than an entire week’s worth of praying and reading the Bible. Serving touched my soul in a way prayer, Bible study, and worship had not been able to do at that time. I found so much spiritual refreshment in the simple act of serving that I made a decision to go back to the saloon as often as I could and serve those people in Jesus’ name until God helped me break free from the giant’s grip. At the time I was pretty sure I was the only pastor who conducted his devotional time in the restroom of a saloon.
To this day, sometimes the only way I touch the hem of Jesus’ garment is by serving others. I know this will sound sacrilegious, but the most important advice I can give you, if you are having trouble hanging on, is this: if you can’t pray, stop trying to pray. Gather all your devotional books and prayer journals and throw them into a box. Run away from churches advertising sermons on prayer and all of the other neat, American, utilitarian approaches to connecting to God. Give yourself permission to connect with God in another fashion. If it lasts a week, so be it. If it lasts three months, so be it. Enter into a season of serving and listening and be perfectly content with that.
As Oswald Chambers said in his spiritual classic My Utmost for His Highest, “Are you in the dark just now in your circumstances, or in your life with God? Then remain quiet. If you open your mouth in the dark, you will talk in the wrong mood: darkness is the time to listen.”
Sign up HERE to get my articles delivered straight to your inbox.