On a recent Thursday, my day off, I was in my pajamas, sipping coffee and reading the news on my computer when I received a text from my spiritual director, Charlotte: “You on your way?” It was 10:10 a.m. When I had calendared our appointment on my smart phone at the end of our previous session I’d entered 11 by mistake. “Oh no, I’ve messed up!” I texted back. “I’ll be there in five minutes.” Our house is less than a mile from her office, so I threw on some jeans and jumped in the car, castigating myself the whole time.
Five minutes later I punched the key code on the door of the Brookland Pastoral Center and raced up the stairs, rattled and out of breath. My spiritual director was waiting for me in her simple, cozy office. Charlotte, who for decades has been trekking with people on their path with God, is a lovely combination of spirit and spunk. Mother Theresa meets Mrs. Doubtfire.
She received me with a smile and a hug. I sank into the soft chair as she lit the candle on the table by the window. “Breathe,” she said. I closed my eyes and gave myself a minute or two to finish arriving. “Let’s begin with a prayer,” said Charlotte, and she had barely begun praying before I felt the tears starting to form. Her gentle prayer filled the air. I took off my glasses and let my tears leak down my cheeks without wiping them away. When Charlotte opened her eyes and saw my wet face, her expression let me know that my tears were welcome and not at all out-of-synch with what God was doing in the room. “There’s something happening here,” she said. “Let Love bring it into the light.”
Frederick Buechner says about tears that whenever we find them in our eyes, especially unexpected tears, we should pay close attention. “They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are,” he says, “but more often than not God is speaking to you through them ….” As best I could tell, what God was saying to me in Charlotte’s office was, “You’ve wandered into a space in which doing isn’t the objective anymore, but being.”
“What I think I’m feeling right now,” I said as I blew my nose, “is relief. I’ve been running fast, as I often seem to do. And as I run, out of the corner of my eye, I sense God running with me, like a deer. I perceive the presence of God, yet I keep running because that’s where I seek my validation as a pastor — in the check-list, in productivity. Until I come to a room like this one where the deer and I meet in the stillness, thank God, and I’m reminded again of what’s real, and what is illusion or idol.”
The Killer Vees
The American culture of productivity and constant connectedness is killing us from the inside out. And churches, rather than offering an alternative to incessant activity, are often the guiltiest perpetrators. Pastors and parishioners alike wake up every morning to a swarm of “killer vees” — volume, velocity and variety: too many things coming at us too fast, from too many directions. We spend evenings at home catching up on overdue email only to wake up to dozens of new messages the next morning. We scramble to offer pastoral care, not so much in person anymore, as through Facebook, email and text messages. Human connection takes a backseat to “pastoral efficiency” and the daily avalanche leaves little time to do anything but react, react, react. There seems to be no room to ponder, rest, create.
Calling our people into stillness is a subversive act, and a holy alternative to the malignant mantra, “work harder; do better.”
First, though, we must learn to be still.
The practice of returning
For any of us outcome-driven pastors who keep getting sucked into the checklist, it’s tempting to chide ourselves with questions like, “Why can’t I stay on-center? Why do I keep missing God?” This is not helpful. Plus, it feeds the illusion that anybody stays “on-center” 24/7. If Scripture reveals anything about us, it’s that we spend most of our time returning to the center, rather than walking around inside of it.
I need constant reminders about returning to God. Sometimes I practically have to drag myself back to the center. I recommend incorporating some particular “holy habit” — a deep breath, a sacred word, hand on your heart, feet on the ground, etc. — into the transitional moments of your day: before making a phone call, before you walk into a meeting, at the start of sermon preparation, just before a difficult conversation. The language of the soul is so still and quiet that if we’re moving too quickly and not paying attention, we’ll blow right past what’s most important.
Ours is an essential and beautiful calling. Every day, people in our congregation are running fast, probably too fast. Often they perceive God, like a deer, running beside them. What they may want from their ministers is productivity. What they need is our invitation to return, again and again, to the God who loves them.