Graceful, Grace-fueled Practicing

March 15, 2010

With the word, “practice,” have I lost you already?

Spiritual practices can be heavy with expectation, especially self-expectation: “I should pray more, more Sabbath time, more rest, more exercise—more, more, more.” Practices, so subtly, become something you do to reach where you ought to be spiritually. This has a whiff of acquiring, accomplishing, “works righteousness,” to use a traditional phrase.

Wonder with me, can spiritual practicing be graceful, grace-fueled?

We were wrapping up another banjo lesson. Cary Fridley, my teacher, began describing the work involved in “cutting” her next CD: recruiting musicians, practicing privately, practicing together again and again—all in preparation for the final recording session.

“I get increasingly anxious as we approach the recording, she admitted. “Well,” I asked, “what helps you with your anxiety?” Her response was profound beyond her knowing. When I can get to that place where the music is more important than me, then I am not anxious.”

You have been to that place. Recall a time in the pulpit when an inner shift occurs. You get to that place where the “message” becomes more important than your delivery. Self-consciousness fades; “other”-consciousness arises. You feel carried by Something larger, unpredictable, mysterious. It’s no longer, you preaching a sermon. The sermon, it seems, is being preached through you. There is a flow, a freedom, a sense of participating in a Force not your own. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, in the midst of an intense pastoral situation, you find yourself at loss for words. Anxiety churns within. You don’t know what to say. Then, on occasion, from that silent place of emptiness and yearning, words come, right words, words that carry grace and truth. You walk away knowing you had received a gift beyond your wisdom. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, even in the midst of a committee or congregational meeting “It” can happen. Anxiety is high. Differences are polarizing. Reactivity abounds. Then, miraculously it seems, enough people get to that place beyond self-serving. Here and there, listening happens; truth telling is risked; options surface. Something More than our selves, a Spirit, seems to be at work. The mutual possibilities, the hopes (the Music) become more important than personal points of view (the players). How often have I seen church members get to that place? Not often.

Consider this: spiritual practices help you experience that place more often. All of us from time to time, as noted, know moments of self-transcendence when we cease to be the center of the action. I’m saying that practices help move us from “time to time” to “often,” from occasional “peak experiences” to daily experiences. Spiritual practices develop an inner capacity for detecting and surrendering to the Holy. They sharpen our sensitivities to the Spirit at work in the world. Like with a musician, practicing doesn’t make the Music happen; rather, it allows the Music to be heard and played.

How then can this practicing be graceful and grace-fueled? Well, it’s a matter of where we start. A musician is first captivated by the music, then she begins practicing. We were first loved, then we began learning how to love. You and I were captivated by the Way of Jesus, then we began to practice our vocation of ministry. We start with Grace. You were brought to your knees before this amazement: you are, along with every living being, unconditionally beloved, valued, forgiven, and delighted in—- all gift, not achievement. Made in the image of God, your true nature is to love, to create, and give. This is who you are. This is who I am at my core. This news about you, and all creation, is the Music that resonates deeply and profoundly.

So, practices ring the bell that awakens us to what we already are. Again and again, they break through the amnesia, reminding us of what is given, not achieved. They recall us to our deepest identity as beloved of God. Practices in this sense don’t get us somewhere; they remind us we are already at home in a love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. Spiritual practices invite us to fall into that Love, regularly as a daily discipline.

Simple? Yes, radically simple, as simple as waking up or putting on a pair of glasses or remembering something forgotten.

Simple, but, oh, so costly. By waking up to our true identity in God’s love, we then begin to practice dis-identifying from every dependency on others to validate us, including ministry. By recognizing our given worth, we then begin to practice letting go of all the ways we attempt to earn our worth, including ministry. By becoming aware of grace, we then begin to practice dying to our ego’s claim as center of our lives.

Grace is the starting point. Grace fuels the practicing. But it is a costly grace. It costs the surrender of every effort at self-justification along the way of transformation.

Seems to me that it’s all about getting to that place where the Music is more important than me. How about you?

Ministry as Traveling in the Belly of a Paradox

March 1, 2010

Pastoral ministry is full of contradictions: being public with audacity, yet private with confidentiality; being fully human in every way, yet set apart as different, a living symbol of much more than we are; speaking truth, yet holding secrets.

This paradox is my most intriguing challenge: ministry is about me, yet ministry is not about me; self-worth, yet self-transcendence; or, as Paul states it I, but not I, Christ lives within me.” (Galatians 2:20) Perhaps, as Thomas Merton suggests in his vivid metaphor, “ . . . like Jonah himself, I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox” (The Sign of Jonas, p. 11)

For much of my ministry, I have lived within this paradox through course correcting. I would turn the steering wheel toward self-differentiation, my growth, finding my voice. “But that’s too self-centered,” an inner voice would soon whisper. “Too much hubris. God forbid if you become autocratic, narcissistic, dominating, ego-centered.”

So then I would course correct, turning the steering wheel to the opposite side — surrendering self, emptying self, dying to self, losing self, giving self away to God and others. Then, at some point, that inner voice returns, “Wait a minute. What about you, your needs? You must have a strong, healthy self to give. Is losing yourself what God desires?”

Now I’m thinking that this tension of opposites needs not to be contradictory. And “course correcting” may not the best strategy for living within the belly of this paradox.

I offer two metaphors for integrating what appears to be contradictory, opposing pulls. Jesus presents the first metaphor: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” (John 15: 5)

Like branches, Jesus suggests that we experience ourselves as separate, unique among other branches. We can say, “I am a branch. No other branch is like me!” That’s true, but we would quickly add, “But oh, I am so much more. I have creative juices flowing within me bearing fruit. I am a vine. Indeed, without this ‘mutual abiding,’ I would be just a lifeless branch.”

A second metaphor is from my own experience. I am a novice banjo player. I find that practicing is very self-absorbing. It is about me. Even when I join a jam session, I am aware of the differences—other instruments, other players, others more gifted and accomplished. But when the music begins, a transformation occurs. Self-consciousness fades as each person with instrument yields to the music that both unites us and accentuates the unique contribution of each one. I can say, “I played the music.” Or, I can say, “The music played through me, through us.”

Similarly, you and I through practice and practice and practice have learned to play our instrument, that is, the craft of ministry. It is about you, your self-differentiation, your personal maturation, you honing the skills of caring, preaching, worship, and leading. And, like the banjo player with the banjo, you visibly play invisible Music, thereby drawing attention to yourself. It looks that way.

Yet, as my metaphor suggests, the banjo player without the music is useless. What matters is the Music, call it Christ consciousness, God’s compassion, Shalom, Spirit or some other name for the gracious Mystery that has claimed our lives. . We become instruments through which the Music reverberates, and more powerfully so, when we “jam” with others. Transformation occurs as we lose our self-consciousness to the Music.

Yes, we can say, “Ministry is about me, uniquely so. No one else plays the Music like I do.” But we would hasten to say, “But oh, there is so much more than my playing. I participate in something much larger, joyous, wondrous and life giving, namely, the Music. Ministry allows the Music to resound through me.”

Maybe this belly of a paradox—ministry is about me; yet ministry is not about me—- is not an either-or after all. Perhaps there is no need for endless course corrections, going back and forth between both truths.

What if you—and you do from time to time—boldly, unapologetically claim your voice, declare your sense of truth, stand up for your convictions, express your distinct personality? To some, you will be perceived as egotistic, self-centered.

Not necessarily so, I say. Not if this is taking seriously your way of playing the Music to the best of your capacity. Becoming a strong differentiated, potent self does not contradict self-transcendence. Quite to the contrary. The more developed you are as a “player,” the better the Music will sound. The ego is to be offered, not diminished. It is to be both matured and surrendered. Side by side are the movements: disciplined self-development and radical self-giving. Not an either-or; rather a both-and. The branch “mutually abides” with the vine; as in “I, but not I, Christ lives within and through me.”

And if so, the role of practice, learning how to hear and play the Music, seems critical. That will be the subject of the next reflection, posted on March 15.

Do you see yourself “traveling toward your destiny in the belly of this paradox?” I am interested in your response.