A friend of mine compiled this prayer of approach from various sources for last Sunday’s service, and something about the compassionate being expected and the kingdom of love on its way touched me deeply.
May you experience the kingdom of love this week wherever you find yourself:
Come into this place, where the ordinary is sanctified,
The human is celebrated, the compassionate is expected.
Come into this place.
Together we make it a holy place, with our every act of worship.
God, help us to listen to our inner spirit;
To the inner yearning to belong to something greater than ourselves.
Help us to listen to our inner spirits
And find there the presence of your good encouraging spirit.
The kingdom of love is coming because:
Somewhere, someone is kind when others are unkind.
A month or so ago I heard an academic who’s written well-respected books, gotten tenure, traveled the world, and shot films say if she had it to do all over again she would have realized that her life wasn’t waiting to start after the dissertation, after she graduated from associate to full professor, after she got tenure, etc., etc., etc., but in fact, “your life starts now.”
This phrase isn’t just relevant to the academic world where we trick ourselves into thinking life and all that is good is marked by dissertations and tenure-track positions, but in all vocations, and the ministry that happens betwixt and between. The words of those faithful brothers and sisters from my church this past weekend, proclaiming that they’d always been a church made me think about my own ministry, and the ways in which, I’ve always been ministering.
Now it doesn’t always look like archetypal ministry, but I’m guessing yours doesn’t either. I’m guessing most ministry happens in snippets and soundbytes and sewers, not in pulpits and with pastors or priests. We minister wherever we are and with what we have to one another, and the efficacy of that ministry isn’t dependent on our education, our status, or even our resources, but rather our reliance on the Spirit.
But there’s another lesson in counter-cultural living, right?
Sometimes when people ask me what I’m really going to do with my life, when I finish these Ph.D. studies, or what the dream job I’m really aiming at looks like, and I can’t answer them, I feel afraid, embarrassed, and anxious. But I’m learning, slowly but surely, to be so grateful and so secure in what God has given me in this life and who God is that I can live without certainty about the next step or a linear trajectory, and yet with great faith that God will provide for me and for others and nurture my call.
When my mother took me with all my heart problems to Mexico with the youth group in high school, she had reason to believe she should leave me home. But if she had, I wouldn’t have felt the Spirit move in my heart in a familiar way but toward unfamiliar places, calling me to ministry on that US-Mexico border during college, and to Puerto Rico, Washington, DC, Princeton Seminary, China, and Princeton University. My mother showed me first what it means to have faith in who God is rather than yourself, someone else, or logical processes and trajectories.
Living as though your life starts now often appears irresponsible, because the steps of your path are connected by the movement and provision of the Spirit rather than your own professional progression or enrichment. But when you realize how much you’ve been given by that Spirit, how faithfully that Spirit has provided, and how meaningful it is to surrender the control we delude ourselves with, you get really grateful, glad, and confident.
So I’m learning when people ask me that snarky question, so what are you really going to do with your life? to smile with blessed assurance and to say confidently, “this is it, I’m doing it.” There’s ministry enough for all of us if we can just find a way to live by the guidance of the Spirit, to live as though our lives start now.
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.