If we were having coffee this morning I would tell you that I love this time of year, because the year, stretched out before us, firmly in the future, is full of possibilities.
Perhaps you would remember that I love to set goals, but this year as I prayerfully considered what God was calling me to, I found myself penning more general statements about how I want to live my life, Pray Audaciously. Be Gracious of Heart. Approach teaching as service and writing and learning as discipline.
A few nights ago I sat in silence, and I felt my heart racing. I felt insecure. I’m insecure, because teaching is a new experience for me this semester, and when I think about needing to prove myself, I’m crestfallen. In my heart, I’m still yearning for China, and when I think of learning and serving, I often picture being hungry and cold with people somewhere else in the world, or preaching from a pulpit in a congregation. But I sat there and I waited for a word from God, and I heard that what God’s calling me to is, “sitting at your feet, childlike, attentive, waiting. It’s being a servant,” and my heart leapt as I thought, “and even I can do that.”
Approaching teaching as service reminds me that Jesus’ teaching was never about proving himself, or even about being right, but it was wholly relational, progressive, and above the fray. And because Jesus relied on God for the balance between these qualities in teaching, his teaching was life-changing.
Yesterday as I talked through some of these fears and excitements with my spiritual director, I realized that if I could just listen to my students with love and attentiveness, if I could just learn with them, I think I’d be doing enough and serving well. In the language of servanthood, teaching becomes less about doing things right or perfectly or best, and more about regarding the people in front of me with respect, reverence, and a gracious heart, and again, I think “even I can do that.”
I would go on to tell you that I intend to sit in silence this year to listen to God more often. I would tell you that I plan to say audacious prayers for China. Somewhere along the way, I think my heart became so troubled by not being there and not being able to “do” anything, and I think deep inside me, a little part of my faith died, when it comes to the people I love there who I feel are very confined by their circumstances. But lately I’ve been remembering that God changes hearts and lives, which is pretty much the greatest path, perhaps the only, toward changing circumstances, and I’ve resolved to pray boldly for China and its people.
And finally, I would tell you that yesterday I had a meeting with a professor who somehow saw through all my meandering writings of late, that my heart lies with foster moms and disabled children, and he encouraged me not to look for ways to make my dissertation topic bigger or more important, but to trust that this small topic can become bigger and greater and more compelling than I ever imagined. It was both overwhelming and heartening to hear such critique and advice–heartening because these are the stories I collected and want to tell, and overwhelming because I need to start a bit fresh with some applications and outlines and etchings.
But it’s a new year, and what better time to start fresh, right?
I remember vividly that my love affair with centering prayer began in my senior year of college.
I was pursuing a call to ministry, poised to move first to Puerto Rico and then onto Washington, DC to serve the poor, and becoming exhausted with finding myself betwixt and between empty praise and worship and stodgy skepticism. I longed for a place where the presence of God, not our wanton human wisdom, was paramount.
Somehow I found my way to the little Catholic circle on my Presbyterian campus, a motley crew led by a renegade lady who didn’t seem to think it weird that everybody called her Pastor and who was convinced that service and contemplation went together. In the little workshop in which she roped me in, she taught us the ins and outs of lectio, the intentional listening for God while reading scripture (in contrast to the very real Bible school temptation to try to unravel the whole meaning of the verses in just a few minutes).
We were reading Ephesians 3:14-18, incidentally one of my favorite passages since youth, closing our eyes and earnestly seeking God, and then going around and sharing the words or the phrases that stuck out to us. When the Pastor got to me, I shared my word, “grasp,” only she revealed to me that that word wasn’t actually in the text for today.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “that happens frequently,” with a smirk and a chuckle, and I was awestruck by how nonchalant this Catholic woman could be about minor miracles in our midst.
It turns out that repeatedly hearing the NIV version of that scripture growing up probably put that word in my head, but maybe God wanted me to hear it, too. When I began to come to the Catholic circle with regularity, where they not only closed their eyes and listened to scripture with their hearts, but sat for thirty minute silent prayer sessions, I also began to use grasp as my prayer word, to which I could return my heart, as I did with my eyes to the candle burning in the center of the room, if my mind wandered.
Pastor Barb, despite her high energy and her electric personality, had this ease about her, this sense that prayer was about so much more than words, and that communion with God was meaningful even when it didn’t feel like anything, even when nothing happens.
As far as my own life is concerned, the mystery of centering prayer seems to be just as much about what happens outside of the prayer as in it. During nearly six years of practicing centering prayer in the barrios of Puerto Rico, in our nation’s capital, and on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, that word grasp took me on a journey from grasping for God, to realizing that God has been ever and always grasping for me.
“Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.”
But what’s active in centering prayer is explicitly not the mind–the mind’s to be quieted to allow for the Spirit to grow, reside, and even meander. My discipline has changed as I’ve grown. Whereas earlier on, I was very conscious of clearing the mind and letting go of all thoughts, I’ve become less legalistic and more open to some of the lingering, nagging voices that exhibit themselves in that silence, more open to the myriad manifestations of God’s presence.
I’ve closed my eyes in just about every fabulous place I’ve ever had the privilege of traveling to. But I’ve never regretted those moments of silence, nor have I ever been really alone. You see, doing centering prayer in community way back in my college days always made sense to me. It’s not an easy thing to commit to those fifteen or thirty minutes on your own, but with safety in numbers, it’s somehow easier to open up to God fully and freely.
At Princeton Seminary, we’d sit in my crowded dorm room and attempt to block out the stress and the theology and the gods we often worshipped to welcome God in a very intentional way. And in China, my dear friend joined me over skype, across an ocean, and a twelve-hour time difference, and yet the practice couldn’t have been more fruitful. She says that after all these years, because we both still have a hard time with silence, it sometimes helps her to look up and see my peaceful face, the ups and downs of the breaths in and out of my chest, and my eyes closed, and and I feel the same way.
Believe it or not, silent prayer isn’t meant to be a solitary, distant practice. As Pastor Barb made clear back in the day with her penchant for social action, it’s meant to take us from detachment, to intention, to communion with God, and into community. I know it sounds impossible, bogus, even, that a practice of silence and contemplation would awaken Christians to community, to love and to justice. And I know it’s not for everyone, my own husband doesn’t take refuge in silence the way I do, and I think that just speaks even more clearly to God’s myriad of manifestations.
This one, this discipline, is not for everyone. But if you’ve ever struggled to hear God above all the other voices, if you’ve ever lost touch with your heart or your spirit, or wondered about the work of the Holy Spirit, you may want to start closing your eyes and listening to your breath, reading scripture with the eyes of your heart, seeking communion rather than answers, and being open to God’s presence not just in these times of silence but everywhere in the world.
I’m fairly certain that ever since I was exposed to the use of the word witness as a verb (probably somewhere between InterVarsity meetings and YouthWorks training), I became uncomfortable with what it seemed to imply.
The crux of the matter, I realize now, is that many versions of “witnessing” seemed to involve very little to no, listening or noticing, despite these being primary meanings of the term. Returning to practicing disciplined Centering Prayer recently has been difficult precisely because listening, noticing, and being silent are things that do not come naturally to me, or to others, I might presume.
But they are so necessary to communion with God and with others:
how can we tell others about who we know God to be if we do not first engage in contemplation, and with intention, noticing and listening for God in and around us? This terrific challenge, to be silent before God, implies a sort of witnessing that I can get behind. This kind of awe-inspiring humility that I feel when I enter God’s presence is the type I hope to impart as I live, imperfectly, yet boldly in the truth that I am forgiven, that I am blessed, so blessed, to be a witness.
Centering Prayer itself is an exercise in releasing ourselves from the things that distract us everyday (for me, it is often the thought that I need to start my work immediately in the morning, so therefore, I don’t have time to pray; or, it might be the thought that my Chinese is inadequate, and therefore so am I and all the plans God has for me here; or, simply, the thought that is more pressing than the words coming out of my husband’s mouth), and repeating a prayer word to remind us of God’s presence and our intention to dwell within that presence as our mind inevitably wanders (as mine just did in the above parenthetical!).
For years my prayer word has been grasp, and the word has held great meaning and a powerful reminder for me that just as I am grasping for God, God is always, ever intently grasping after me. Since I arrived in China, though, I have felt compelled to discover a new prayer word, which is no small task, given that I have literally lived and breathed the previous one for over six years.
However, the word, abide, has gently, but firmly marked my silent prayers here in China. And tonight as I was imagining myself at the feet of Jesus, looking into his eyes and straining to hear what he has to say to me, alongside Mary and Martha, I stumbled upon two things.
One is the sense in which distraction is really a choice, and not a force to which we are passively and powerfully subjected.
Martha feels trapped by the tasks which she finds a great distraction from Jesus, but I think Jesus himself implies that distraction is a choice, when he says of her sister, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I recently read an article in which a brilliant professor who is busy with multi-million dollar grants and projects had the revelation through spending about a week in nature away from computers, text messages, and the like, that he could, indeed, stand to become a better listener.
And I hear God saying to me that I can choose to be distracted and let my life pass me by, or I can choose the best thing, the only thing, which is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. I can choose to listen to others, and I can choose to be fully committed and fully attuned to things that really matter.
The second revelation was to do with this prayer word abide.
It occurred to me this evening that there is nothing modern about the word abide, because it harbors no sense of time, contemporaneity, or measurement, but a sense of longevity, eternity, and perpetuity. The phrase I often repeat as I pray and process the distractions in silence is, “abide in me, as I abide in you,” (John 15:4), and tonight as I repeated it, it was as if I was hearing it for the first time.
I realized in my spirit that abiding is the opposite of distraction: abiding is the experience of dwelling with one another, of being content, of listening and relishing silent presence. I was sitting with my knees propped under my chin as I began to pray, and for the first time that day I noticed the tightness in my shoulders, but as I repeated my prayer word, dwelling, abiding at Jesus’ feet, far away from the distractions, the kitchen where I had previously been alongside Martha, clamoring away, I not only felt the tightness dissipate, but I felt almost as if there was a hand upon my back supporting me, and I allowed myself to lean back into it, resting, abiding, and relishing God’s presence.
Thankfully, this choice to abide, to choose against the distractions of this world, and to choose ‘the better part, the only thing’ comes also with God’s promise to support us, to hold us up as we go on living, and that can ‘never be taken away from us.’