Me & the Military: How it Changed Me

Originally published Tuesday, 14 October 2014.

Painting God's love notes. Officers in the Warriors Transition Battalion
uncover their souls & stories. {Spiritual Whitespace Retreat, Nashville, TN}

Something in me changed. In a big way. It happened so unexpectedly.

 It happened in Nashville, a city I've never been before. It happened before I had my first taste of cheesy grits, the afternoon I boarded an airplane to come home.

It was happening as sunshine spilled through the windows of a swanky downtown restaurant, sitting across the table from Chaplain Captain Rob Sterling and his wife Anne Marie, as I spread sweet butter and raspberry jam onto warm fluffy biscuits.

What's happened is still changing me inside now, as I type to you here back in California, sitting at my keyboard in the heart of Silicon Valley.

I'm not the same as I used to be. I feel alive. Real. In a new way.  

Something I Imagined?

I went to Nashville split between who I felt I needed to be -- and who I really am -- to lead my first multi-day Spiritual Whitespace Retreat based on the book I just released over the summer with a group of people I felt the most unqualified to reach.

I didn't know if it was really true, if the change in me was real or not.  

So, I've been hesitating to write about the trip, afraid of really celebrating -- of really being happy -- of really calling this joy mine. Because what if all the soul-tectonic-plate moving changes I saw happening right in front of me in Nashville -- for the Military -- was just something I imagined?

What if all the stories people uncovered and shared with emotion -- moments pregnant with intimate quiet, roaring laughter, reflective respect as people journaled and shared, souls-breaking free tears of pain and words flowing, questions and doubts expressed -- happened but weren't lasting or true?

I've been teetering between feelings of euphoria and fear.

So, I've been waiting for the "After Action Reports", for the written feedback from the Chaplain, before I shared today's post with you.

What in the World

I've been trying to process it all -- what happened when the Military invited me to craft and lead a Spiritual Whitespace Retreat for the Warrior Transition Battalion, tasked with serving wounded soldiers, headquartered in Fort Campbell, KY.

I never could've imagined the first group I would lead on the soul-changing journey of rest and refreshment would be military officers, 90% of them men.

The men and women I was flying south to meet -- along with their military wives who shoulder the burden of raising families while dad is away on deployment -- are strong.

These officers are leaders who have succeeded in their service to our country because of their strength, perseverance, and ability to perform under unspeakable pressure. They have lead their units with excellence, order and control.

What in the world was I going to say that could make a real difference? What does a Chinese-American 5 foot woman born in San Francisco, Chinatown -- who suffered PTSD for the past two years with broken memories, uncontrollable anxiety and insomnia -- have to say to officers caring for injured soldiers, wounded from the battlefield?

Would They?

Leaders who have been in combat themselves are reliving them through the soldiers they care for 24 hours-a-day, on-call 7 days a week.  Phone calls wake them up at crazy hours during the night.  

By day, they look into eyes of soldiers who are confused, angry or depressed to guide them on the disorienting journey of healing and recovery.  They are responsible for each soldier's disorienting transition back to active duty, or for some with irreversible injuries, prepare them for the unexpected re-entrance into civilian life.

It's soul-wearying work.

It's a heavy burden to carry because it's often the strong ones -- the encouragers -- the doers --

who carry the heaviest burdens,

and incur the greatest emotional and physical cost,

who find it hard to express want or need,

while finding it easier to just get things done,

even if they truly long to receive comfort,

yet can't seem to give themselves permission to rest.

I felt completely unqualified. These are men and women of action.

Would they even want to go on a journey of the soul? (I imagined eye-rolling inwardly even though they would politely sit at attention.)

Would they uncover the stories of their childhood, their dreams and their today lives?  (I pictured pop-up bubbles over their heads with "Oh, no, I signed up for this touchy-feely stuff...")

Would they share their discoveries with God and each other -- with up different levels of ranking present in the room -- and risk being vulnerable?  (I imagined outright revolting at this point....)

Would I?

But, the biggest question that struck fear in my heart was this:  was I the one to take them on such a journey?

Would I be enough?

On the 8 hour flight there, I worked on changing the tone in which I was going to deliver the content.  These were "officers", I said to myself. I need to give them a "leadership training seminar" on spiritual whitespace -- give them information, statistics, studies. Something they can grab a hold of.

But, that would defeat the whole message of spiritual whitespace:  spiritual rest is a journey to be experienced -- with God and with others deeply.

Rest is relationship. Rest is being real. Rest is being known. Rest is taking the time, risk and creativity to nurture your soul -- in the unique way that you need. Rest is radical.

Making room for soul rest is an intimate journey of experiencing God's rest.

To do that, we need to move into new territory:  the vulnerable places in our stories.

This type of self-discovery and God-discovery cannot be done behind the safety of information or head knowledge.

An Experience, not a Certainty

Then, it struck me like the first crack of lightning crawling through a thunderstorm-filled sky on a sweltering Tennessee southern day: We were all going on a journey of experiencing rest that weekend -- including myself.

How could I possibly lead anyone to any life-changing encounters with God without taking life-changing risks to depend on God myself?

I realized I was looking for certainty but God was asking for my faith.

I decided to structure the weekend to guiding people to experience Spiritual Whitespace -- to sample and try different ways of experiencing rest -- rather than teaching it as a class to transfer information or learn about studies and anecdotes.

I decided I would take everyone on a journey of the soul -- in community -- in the same way Jesus led me to experience it in the privacy of my heart.

This was riskier and unpredictable. But, it would be real.

Rest would no longer become a solo experience in our heads.

Rest will become an in-real-life together-experience of the heart.


As I stood there that first morning, looking into the eyes of men and women I had never met, I stepped through the curtain of fear and became known. Everything I ever feared about myself, about God, the questions about rest and the answers I found, I shared.

As I led everyone through the arc of storytelling, journaling their childhood stories, connecting to God through silence and solitude on a solo nature walk, prayer and meditation, and visual arts (painting) -- people began to share deep, powerful stories.

Quiet. Stillness. People began to feel.  And remember.

Listening.  Seeing. People were moved.  Stories uncovered and shared. 

Writing.  Painting.  People became known.  Laughter and tears.  Experiencing intimacy with God. Each other. 

They suddenly became real. I suddenly became real.

Live.  Shaking.  Fearful. Hopeful.  Ashamed. Joyful. Desperate to know if we were more alike than different.

We all have stories.... I began to say. On the outside, we might look different. But, inside, we're all on the same journey. We're all on the same mission. To be loved. To be known. To be close to God. To each other. We all long for rest...

A Connection Never Before

As people began responding to the individual and group prompts and activities I prepared, I felt a connection I've never experienced before.

 I realized everything I've believed was broken about me and my story are the very parts that make me real  -- and empower me to connect with others deeply. 

You know the little girl who has always felt ashamed and hid -- who didn't seem to fit with all the unbroken people in the world? That little girl is no longer alone.

She discovered in Nashville that everything broken and beautiful that has shaped her story invites others to connect with God and share everything beautiful and real:  their stories.

The little girl realizes Jesus is more alive in her broken and whole than hiding and unbroken.

Everyone after all really does have a story.

"We are not very different at all," an officer standing over 6 feet tall (three of me could fit into him I think) came to share with me smiling during a break, with his wife standing next to him.

We are all sojourners in the journey of faith.

We are all deployed in the battlefield of life.

We all long to be known and loved. We all can rest.

And for one weekend in Nashville I'll remember forever, I have experienced this truth. And I'll never be the same again.


Pull up a chair. I have some pictures to share with you below.

But, is there something God's invited you to risk being vulnerable with?

Share a comment below. This is a quiet place for you and me.


 For inspiration on creating more room in your life to breathe, order a copy of Finding Spiritual Whitespace: Awakening Your Soul To Rest, which has garnered starred review praise from Publisher’s Weekly.  This memoir-driven guidebook for rest is for anyone longing to create space to draw closer to God. Learn how a life-long dream unexpectedly launched Bonnie into painful childhood memoires to discover a better story of rest. Visit to learn more. 

"Whitespace is soul grace. Bonnie Gray ushers weary women into the real possibility." - Ann Voskamp, NY Times bestsellng author of One Thousand Gifts

"If you want to hear Jesus speak more tenderly to your soul than ever befrore, this is the book for you." - Lysa TerKeurst, NY Times bestselling author of Unglued

"We live in a culture that brags and boasts about being busy. Into that reality steps Bonnie with a new idea.
Whitespace is an important concept and Bonnie has captured it perfectly. 
-Jon Acuff,NY  Times bestselling author of Start!

Bonnie Gray is the soulful writer behind serving up shots of faith for the daily grind.  She is a contributor at DaySpring (in)courage, her work spotighted by Christianity Today, Relevant, Catalyst Leadership and Publisher's Weekly named Bonnie of the Top 6 notable new religion authors. After graduating from UCLA, Bonnie served as a missionary, ministry entrepreneur, and Silicon Valley high-tech professional. She lives in Northern California with her husband, Eric, and their two sons.

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Oh, yes, that After-Action Report from Chaplain Rob Sterling, who invited me to come speak?

He's received the feedback surveys from those who attended. Here's an excerpt:

I can't thank you enough for the work you put in to the weekend. I am still hearing positive feedback about people's experiences, and that is a pretty rare thing two weeks after a retreat for us. There is a real sense that people can't go back to the way things were for them before, and the feedback I have received indicates that for most this was the first time they had done anything like this, and that something has changed in them. 

I have been to many conferences, retreats, and seminars. My bookshelves are filled with the resources I brought home from these events. I came home from this retreat with resources, but more than that, I came home with transformational words from God.

I really don't know exactly how you did it, but in the space of 2 days you created an environment that was more than just information about finding spiritual whitespace. It was spiritual whitespace.

It has been two weeks, and I am still working through what God spoke in to my life at this retreat. I think that's a sign of something good, something real, something permanent.

And it started with you being willing to talk about what you had been through, and how God met you in your journey.

Some Pictures To Share

Here are some pictures from the weekend.  I got permission to share a few photos from the retreat.  Due to privacy issues, I can't share any photos that include images/faces or anything that was created, written or shared at the retreat.

And I'm not at liberty to share details or examples of stories shared to honor the confidentiality agreement I made with everyone.  But, know prayers were answered in amazing, life-altering ways. told our brave men & women officers you prayed for them & we love them. Stories were shared & every soldier was brave in a new way.

hello Nashville by taxi. just arrived to see you for the 1st time. what will you look like by day? {psst... kindreds, thanks for sharing your favorite café or bakery in Nashville on Instagram and Facebook for me...fave spots to enjoy? I had 1day of #spiritualwhitespace before the retreat and felt happy with recommendations from you in my back pocket.}

I arrived a day earlier before the retreat to have a day of whitespace myself.  good for the soul...walking a labyrinth... A soul date with God. {thanks to Instagram kindred @loribirleson for recommending Scarrit-Bennett, Nashville} #spiritualwhitespace

Her story deployed her to Bosnia & Afghanistan once upon a time. {#spiritualwhitespace artwork created during weekend by officer Y}

A music rest with whitespace breaking through. {artwork created by officer X from the weekend of #spiritualwhitespace}

First time in Nashville, I wanted to eat what y'all love here down South. These grits were GOO--OOD!! Oh yeah. Server: Bacon, sausage, or ham, ma'am? Me: no doubt about... Sausage! {What would you choose if we had brunch together?.. I'll share my fresh cut fries with you}.  #TheFarmhouseSoBro

Thank you Chaplain, Captain Sterling, & sweet wife Anne Marie for taking me to taste my first grits in Nashville. (I was scooping them up like no tomorrow, surprised I liked them.  my friends laughed and said, "it's the cheese that you like!" what an honor to share the journey together. #spiritualwhitespace

Ok Nashville... By day you are hot, sweltering & wet like a rag, but I love you because the people here have music in their bones and in their soul. the soldiers I've met here & the kindreds who have prayed to carry me here have made this city a part of my story. I'm forever changed.  And I can't help but be happy.  from the inside out. #spiritualwhitespace {thank you friends for being a part of this chapter in my life}