Category Archives: Prayer in Leadership Work

Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

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Filed under Accountability & Leader Development, Community Formation, Intelligent Christians in the 21st Century, Leader Development, Prayer in Leadership Work, Spiritual Formation, Stewardship Year-Round, Uncategorized

Haiti Singing

The first psalm for Saturday’s daily office of Morning Prayer, is #22.   The Psalm begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”

Apt indeed  for today’s daily news.  I get mine reading the Guardian online. 

In Tim Livesay’s blog from Haiti on Saturday, he filmed his walk through a part of Port au Prince towards an open space (perhaps a park, perhaps a park in front of a school or a church, hard to tell from the video).  In the beginning the sounds are of his feet crunching and stumbling over the concrete rubble in his way, but soon we hear singing in the distance.  All around are the sounds of people walking, calling, and standing over parts of buildings they are dislodging in efforts to find the trapped or the dead.  As the camera shows the wrecked street ahead, the singing grows louder, but no explanation is offered.  It becomes clear as the astonishing sound of children singing what many of us learned in Sunday School or vacation Bible School– “Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleuia, praise ye the LORD!”  Only, of course, this singing is in Creole.

 The camera turns a corner and reveals a small group of tents and cloth lean-tos in what is left of a park.  “They sing, here, the people sing, the people of Haiti are like no other,” says the photographer, before the filming moves on to other scenes.  By then, we have learned those singing children and their parents have no water, no electricity, no food, no medical help, and many have no knowledge of their parents or children lost in the devastation.

I read several other accounts of Haitians singing.  I wondered why the media hadn’t reported on this, which Tim Livesay described as normal and going on in daily life, whether normal  or disaster.  This morning’s Washington Post does have an article on the singing, but the writer interprets the singing as a questionably unified response.  The singing is questionable because the writer wonders how long Roman Catholics, Protestants and vodun practitioners can hold their views in common, and wonders just what the singing might represent.  Perhaps reports of Haitians singing are too soft to make interesting news, perhaps such reports might even reduce sympathy of Americans paying attention to the disaster.  Perhaps to the sophisticated American mind, the singing of praise and thanksgiving in such a devastating context feels like magical thinking, or like denial.  Perhaps reporting on it implies an outrageously inappropriate sense of complacency.

Madeleine l’Engle once said to me (and said it more than once in her books) that one  single act of gratitude in time of trouble is worth a thousand songs of praise in times of content and ease.  She said this when one of her grandchildren was in hospital after a hit-and-run accident.  I have learned the truth of this in my own darkest times.  Giving thanks for 10 things, first thing, every day in time of trouble, aligns the spirit and mind with God’s providence and love.  Such alignment increases awareness of God’s presence.The last 8 verses of Psalm 22 start a song of praise, in direct opposition to the earlier great, enduring cry of despair:  “Praise the LORD, you that fear him, stand in awe of him, o offspring of Israel; all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.  For he does not despise or abhor the poor in their poverty, neither does he  hide his face from them, but when they cry to him he hears them.  My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.”

The Psalmist is witness as the Haitians are, to some mysterious, powerful access to God’s presence granted in poverty, destitution, misery, disaster, terrible trouble.  This is not to say the Haitians will escape suffering all the psychological stresses of the terrible trouble they are in now; this is not to say the effects will not linger in the coming years.  I find myself paying attention here to the attitude created by the  singing praise and gratitude  in dreadful conditions of trouble and loss.   I do not minimize  the Haitians’ needs or dismiss our communal responsibility to the people in need.   I find myself thinking about the great strength of faith the Haitians have.

The ability to give  habitual praise in time of trouble requires practicing praise in all circumstances, long before trouble comes.  A  spiritual practice of this sort could open our eyes wider to the light of the great mercy of God.  We would become more aware of God’s presence in fact instead of theory.   We ‘d be less likely to cling to our own self-sufficiency, and fear our own losses and troubles less, if we learned this habit of giving thanks in times of trouble. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and my words of distress?…” and 2o verses later,  in the same context,  “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him, they shall be known as the LORD’s forever.  They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn, the saving deeds that he has done.”  (Ps. 22, vs. 29)

Several summers ago, I heard the Rev. Ken Bailey, New Testament scholar, preach on this Psalm.  Jesus, he said, would  have known the entire Psalm when, on the cross, he cried out the first verse.  He and all his listeners would have known the entire Psalm, and would have heard those last verses of thanksgiving in direct connection with the first ones of despair.   In fact, many psalms do this odd thing–looping a paen of praise into the cry of despair and anger.  

Then there comes a time of silence.   Silence, when cries of despair and songs of praise are not enough. Slogging on in horror, through  unimaginable evidence of death, unending misery, terrible loneliness, the soul’s shocked silence is all that has the power to speak heart’s truth to God. 

The more disciplined we Christians are in prayer, the more we will learn how much of life is encompassed between the two cries of  Psalm 22.  The more open we are to giving authentic  praise in time of trouble, the more open we are to mourning with those who mourn.   Let us be steadfast in giving help to Haitians, and let us be steadfast in prayer as they are.

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Prayer as Due Diligence

Year-end budget activity always leaves me feeling undernourished.  I drive to and from the vestry meeting not thinking about money matters.  I think instead about the pitifully weak nod to prayer  we’re bound to make at the meeting’s beginning and end.  This prayer, so standard in every denomination, is like Wonder Bread.  The meeting’s matters and content are the tuna salad, Lebanon bologna, cheese and pickles, whatever.  The lids of a sandwich, of course, are just there to hold the contents in place, right?  We treat prayer the same way.  Isn’t the budget more important than the prayer?  Aren’t the votes of more consequence than the praying? 

Well…  Can that be true?   

By now, everybody knows what poor nutrition comes in any sandwich made with two slices of Wonder Bread (I feel obliged to qualify that last word with ‘fake’, given all the preservatives replacing ingredients my grandmother would have used in the kitchen).  Our 15 second prayers at start and finish of vestry/session/council meetings (ok–take 25 seconds, if you protest) are as helpful to us in the meeting as Wonderbread is to a child’s lunch.

We  always say a prayer before the meeting starts, and of course we say one at the end.  These amount to “Bless this meeting and our decisions,” and “bless us going home.”  In between we make our decisions:  approve this much of a deficit to keep things rolling and the roof on, disapprove that much in the deficit to salve conscience.    “Let us start the sandwich prayer now,”  and “let us join in prayer as we close the sandwich now.” 

In the beginning, 40 years ago when I started going to session meetings, I entered into the invocation with full intention to  pray with everyone else.  But the moderator’s prayer blew right by before I’d even settled my awareness of us in God’s presence.  Whish! 

Since then, I’ve watched and listened, but have given up really praying at the start or end of session/vestry/council meetings.  Instead, I am wary as we all bow our heads at the necessary signal.  We come into the meetings primed to decide on this or insist on that, to defend the other or attack something else, to resist that power push and to hold ground against the opposing power pull and play.  There’s no good way I know of to pray all that.  I have trouble praying “God bless our side in this war,” and I have the same trouble exactly, asking God to bless a church leadership group in contention over anything, budget battles included.

Because I grew up in a series of Presbyterian (PCUSA) missionary boarding schools, I learned early on (with all my peers–it’s not an isolated gift to the odd individual) to pray in a group.  I learned to hear the sound of prayer in common, the wordless, quiet joining of intentions to a single focus voiced by one speaker.  I can still do this kind of listening; anyone can learn the skill.    Here’s what I hear when all of us around the table obediently bow our heads at the signal for the invocation:  we draw breath, we breath out, and then comes a  dry rattling moment when everything in our minds rushes into an infinitesimally minute and simultaneously expanding moment of awareness.  You can hear the wind picking up all the big dry oak leaves on the ground and whisking them along the paved street.

As each of us joins in the single moment of calling on God together, our separate thoughts racket into a chute and collect just behind our foreheads.  “Will the mission line items survive?  I’ll vote yes to cut the choir’s retreat budget, no on cutting the funds for extra nursery care, I’ve got to get the rear tire replaced, should have written Janet already, forgot to email Jim about the survey, should have taken two minutes at supper to ask G how his day was instead of rushing out, getting here early, does everyone else have these blank thoughts about praying and these crammed thoughts about what we’re really doing, come to think of that, what should we be doing in the meeting, I wonder what God hears or pays attention to,  is this praying a bit of traditional magic, I wonder why we never talk about this part of what we do together, what are the assumptions, what is the really deep right thing to do, does everybody really think this is just about bank balances, oh, we’re done, time to pay attention in Christ’s name.  Amen.”

Then we have the meeting.  It goes on, and of course we pass the budget, all of us with our hands in our pockets as we vote yes.

We decry our decisions in parking lot conversations afterwards:  why are we still living beyond our means?  why are we still stinting on youth support?  when are we going to get the green replacement heating system?  what are we going to do to improve stewardship? 

Who wonders what God wants in the congregation that year?  Who wonders what might come to the tongue should God appear and present us with the question Jesus asked of Blind Bartimeus:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  You, plural, of course. 

What would I say?  What would we say?  I have no idea at all what the other leaders who are responsible, with me, for this congregation, would ask God to give us.  We come to such understanding by common endeavor, not by any leader’s perspicacity or political savvy.  We come to such an understanding not because some clergy leader tells us what to know or think or say.  We are responsible.  We  need to figure out how we can become that responsibility, and how that responsibility can become  us.  How can leaders put on and wear this responsibility towards God (usually understood as ordained calling) with integrity and grace?  That would be true stewardship, essential stewardship of the leadership calling. 

So prayer before and after a church leadership meeting has two essential elements:  that we recall ourselves as belonging to God and not to ourselves, and that we become aware of joining each other in mutual  submission and supplication before we undertake our decisions.

The way of becoming a leader is not decision-making.  The way of becoming a leader is prayer.

Here are the essential tasks: 

  1. To learn to know what to ask of God, specifically
  2. To know the congregation well enough to know what to ask for on their behalf and for them 
  3. To understand our direction clearly, to become willing to ask God, in prayer all together, for what we the leaders know we need/want/hope for at any given time in our term of service
  4.  To pray much more seriously, much more often and with more imagination and more discipline than we leaders ever attempt in our committed, commissioned calling. 

Call such prayer due diligence before we undertake or pass any budget in the coming year.

Setting out to learn to pray for the congregation for six months as due diligence before passing the budget… how bad can that be?  Sounds like a good nourishing mouthful to me!

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Filed under Prayer in Leadership Work, Stewardship Year-Round