Ministry to Homeless Friends: Lessons Learned

I learned one big lesson each of the first five times I ventured out with the team from NYC Relief (“The Relief Bus”).CBovzOnUkAA8QD6

1. Many might wonder, “The Bible says that God cares for the poor, but does he? How is that?” I learned that if you ask the poor themselves, “Does God care for you.” They are very likely to say “Yes!”

2. We often need to see results, and how what we do is important and a good use of our time in that way. I learned that simply kneeling down to talk to someone, looking them in the face, and showing them the love of God has great significance in itself. In fact, it’s exactly, specifically, explicitly what Jesus says to do. (He doesn’t tell us we have to save the world or force others to change.)

3. I learned from a friend on the street that, if I feel my wife can’t really hear me when I’m trying to tell her something, that I should just “Take her hand, ask her to sit down with me, and then have a conversation.” Simple. No doubt heard it before. It had a special impact this time. (But I still need to do it, so the story isn’t over yet.) I learned that I can learn from someone on the street – and why not?

4. I’ve been either in ministry or preparing for ministry most of my life, and most of that time I’ve had my nose in a book, and I’ve been “all up in my head.” When I met a bunch of 18 year old volunteers, and learned that in their ministry school, this do stuff like this most every day (street ministry in Manhattan), I learned that I had a long way to go understanding what God expects of me and how much more I could also be doing.

5. To do street ministry, you have to start by entering a “no-judgment zone” with anyone you will meet. It’s not about merit or blame. Our job is unconditional love. I learned that I can (and should) bring this same attitude home with me, and apply it on a daily basis (for instance) with my wife and children. Imagine.

If I am ever able to work more full-time with the Relief Bus, I will have to raise support. I’ve already been thinking about what I might say to church groups or interested friends. After four or five points, I know now that I would have to sheepishly admit (point #6), that I do this because I need to. This is how I so spiritual formation. Doing this changes me. It makes me a better Christian, and a better human (which, after all is the point of being a Christian). I don’t know at this point where it will all lead, but I’m all in.

Richard Rohr On Downward Mobility

“The path of descent is the path of transformation.
Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.”

“The soul has many secrets. They are only revealed to those who want them, and are never completely forced upon us. One of the best-kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up. In Scripture, we see that the wrestling and wounding of Jacob are necessary for Jacob to become Israel (Genesis 32:26-32), and the death and resurrection of Jesus are necessary to create Christianity. The loss and renewal pattern is so constant and ubiquitous that it should hardly be called a secret at all. Yet it is still a secret, probably because we do not want to see it. We do not want to embark on a further journey (the second half of life) if it feels like going down, especially after having put so much sound and fury into going up (the first half of life). This is surely the first and primary reason why many people never get to the fullness of their own lives.”

___________________________________

“Soul knowledge sends you in the opposite direction from consumerism. It’s not addition that makes one holy, but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of the pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously. Conversion is more about unlearning than learning. In a certain sense we are on the utterly wrong track. We are climbing while Jesus is descending, and in that we reflect the pride and the arrogance of Western civilization, usually trying to accomplish, perform, and achieve. This is our real operative religion. Success is holy! We transferred much of that to our version of Christianity and made the Gospel into spiritual consumerism. The ego is still in charge. There is not much room left for God when the false self takes itself and its private self-development that seriously. All we can really do is get ourselves out of the way, and honestly we can’t even do that. It is done to us through this terrible thing called suffering.”

____________________________________

“Some have called this principle of going down to go up a “spirituality of imperfection” or “the way of the wound.” It has been affirmed in Christianity by St. Thérèse of Lisieux as her Little Way, by St. Francis as the way of poverty, and by Alcoholics Anonymous as the necessary First Step. St. Paul taught this unwelcome message with his enigmatic “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, in saying that, he was merely building on what he called the “folly” of the crucifixion of Jesus—a tragic and absurd dying that became resurrection itself. You will not know for sure that this message is true until you are on the “up” side. You will never imagine it to be true until you have gone through the “down” yourself and come out on the other side in larger form. You must be pressured from on high, by fate, circumstance, love, or God, because nothing in you wants to believe it, or wants to go through it. Falling upward is a secret of the soul, known not by thinking about it or proving it but only by risking it—at least once. And by allowing yourself to be led—at least once. Those who have allowed it know it is true, but only after the fact.”

___________________________________

Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
pp. xxiii-xxiv and pp. xviii-xix, and from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 46, day 49
(Available through Franciscan Media)

The Daily Meditations for 2013 are now available
in Fr. Richard’s new book Yes, And . . . .

_____________________________________

Downward Mobility and the “Full Gospel”

People often say, “Everything old is new again.”, and today some prescribe ancient spiritual practices as a positive way to impact the deepest needs of modern people. Much of what I hear being said sounds like the “full gospel” more than anything else I’ve ever heard. By that I mean that I’m hearing “good news” for me as an individual (I can know God more deeply and increase the possibility of being changed by him.) and “good news” for others (since God can use me in the lives of those in my circles of influence to profoundly affect them in their relationship with God.) In other words, I can become a better human being, and God can use me to help others also “morph” in this way. These others would include my spouse, my children, my siblings, my parents, my friends, my neighbors, the poor, and other disenfranchised people that I seek out as I become a neighbor to them. (These notes reflect a logical approach, not a chronological one, meaning that they attempt to answer these kinds of questions: “If I’m hoping and praying for God’s kingdom to come into my life and circles of influence, how should I go about that? Logically, where do I begin? What are the priorities? What things depend on other prior things?”, etc.)

What follows is an outline of what I’m hearing, the full explanation of which would be a book.

1. You can’t control others or your own circumstances, so don’t waste important energy trying.

2. You are not responsible for the reactions and behavior of others. That’s their business. They have to attend to that.

3. Focus on yourself. That’s where you have some control. You are by far the biggest problem you have. Expending energy on this makes sense. Each of us must invariably start here.

4. When you change yourself, that affects all your “systems.” (marriage, family, work, church, neighborhood, etc.) You’re not giving up on change in the lives of others you love, you’re simply approaching it in a way that makes that change more likely – you’re addressing the need for person change. As you change, others will change.

5. The most important thing you can do is to change yourself, and changing yourself is the only hope you have of changing others or your circumstances. (Obviously, points #1 through #5 all go together.) This statement summarizes the first four points, but also holds out personal change as the most critical, wisest, most strategic commitment you can make.

6. None of these will be enough to change you: more information, more motivation, more accountability, or more serious effort. This may sound like bad news, but it’s really actually good news, as we see in the points that follow.

7. The possibility of change increases with new perspectives – a) when I see myself as loved and valued by God, b) when I see others as loved and valued by God, c) when I see exactly where I need to be changed or transformed (my ego, temperament, ingrained habits, signature sins, thought patterns, etc.), and d) when I see that God is bigger than my problems.

8. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new skills entailed in attending to God, for instance in learning a) to sit in God’s presence, b) to wait, c) to listen, d) to let go, e) to be mindful, f) to do without, g) to meditate (lectio divina), h) and to practice solitude and silence. (Practicing these things is the key to the new perspectives of #7 above.)

9. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new rhythms in attending to God, for instance in practicing a) the daily office, b) an examen, c) unceasing prayer, and d) keeping Sabbath. (These will be aids in building the new skills of #8 above into our daily lives.)

10. The possibility of change increases as I bring new attitudes and practices to my relationships – a) speaking truth in love, b) practicing loyalty and kindness (embracing managed conflict rather than running from it), and c) looking for and capitalizing on transformational moments in each day (Nouwen’s “full moments.”)

11. The possibility of change increases as I adopt new priorities – a) living out the great commandment, b) involving myself in the great commission, and c) seeking justice for the poor and disenfranchised. (These will be the measures of success of this “project” at all times.) If you’re not growing in a life of love for God and others, and if you’re not practicing justice, something is amiss. These are the Biblical measures of progress.

12) The possibility of change increases as I embrace a new kind of patience – applying grace to myself and others, and embracing the unique journey that God has for me and them – remembering that personal transformation is the work of a lifetime and cannot be forced in my life or the life of others.

In the end, I am powerless over my sin and when it comes to truly changing myself. Only God can change me. My job is hospitality toward him – welcoming him and creating space for him to continue the work that he has begun in me, no matter how daunting that may be. Seeking God’s kingdom first (his glory, his agenda) will be the only appropriate and most effective way of entering into personal transformation. Seeking after the good things he has for me must take a secondary place to these priorities of his. The foundation of all that I do in this regard will be my refusal to insist on my rights before God, and with others. (Phil. 2) The commitment to do this a central and intrinsic part everything above. (#1-12)

I don’t know if this sounds new to you, but much of it is revolutionary for me. It’s a lot of familiar ideas, but the words are all arranged in new ways. I hope you find this provocative and helpful, and as always, I welcome your reflections and contributions. In the end, it’s all about our greatest happiness, and God’s greatest glory (but not in that order).

Shame or Conviction? Choose Carefully

“Got my feet on the earth, but my face to the sky.”
Toby Mac in Hey Devil

Imagine that next Sunday, your pastor or priest begins his morning talk like this:

“The longer I live, the more I am aware of my sinfulness, faithlessness, lack of courage, narrow-mindedness; the more I feel the surging waves of greed, lust, violence, and indignation roaring in my innermost self. Growing older has not made life with God easier. In fact, it has become harder to experience his presence, to feel his love, to taste his goodness, to touch his caring hands.”

Or imagine if instead it was a missionary that your church supported, laying bare his heart like this:

“As I said, I want a woman – just one to hold and press against me, to feel and fondle with my lips and fingers. Disgustingly, it could be any woman, as I cannot seem to bring her [his fiancée] fixedly to mind, and it is just the woman want [sic] that plagues me, the craving to feel one close to me.”

Or the same man recounting this near misadventure:

“Yesterday, walking back from Angu’s house after injecting Augostine (who, praise God is better after his near death struggle with pneumonia), I was alone in the cool, dark forest, and I knew then how vulnerable I am just now to attacks of fleshly temptations. Even then, I don’t know how it would have been had I met an Indian woman alone in the trail. O God, what a ferocious thing is sexual desire, and how often it is on me now.”

You’d probably be consulting the bulletin to see if you mistakenly wandered into a 12-step meeting, right? Or wondering, “Where do they get these guys? This is a pastor?! This is a missionary?!”

Imagine again then, that just when you thought you were as surprised as you could be at church, that you learn that the pastor (priest) speaking about his “greed, lust and violence” was Henri Nouwen, beloved and admired as a spiritual director around the world, and that the missionary suffering with “ferocious” sexual desire (which he calls “woman want”) was the martyred and revered missionary Jim Elliot.

We’re shocked. The church admires and loves these men. They’re supposed to be so much better than us. It turns out they have some pretty ugly desires. It turns out they might succumb to some pretty ugly behavior. We might even say of them, as we sometimes say of ourselves, “They ought to be ashamed.”

That’s how it works, right? When we become so powerfully aware of our sin, we beat up on ourselves, wrap ourselves in shame, and begin to distance ourselves from God. We understand why Judas hung himself. We understand why, after the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, he quit the ministry.

But this predictable response is a bad choice. The sin-shame cycle leads to a worsened spiritual walk and therefore to even more failure. It also causes us to run from God like Jonah tried to do. We can’t look at ourselves in the mirror, or God in the face. Gradually, if we perform well, we begin to feel more worthy (i.e., less shameful), and we move back towards God again – at least until the cycle repeats itself, which it inevitably does.

Fortunately,  we can choose another response when we sin. Instead of receiving shame, we can accept conviction. Shame comes from our enemy – “the accuser of the brethren” and is destructive in its intent and poisonous in its experience. Conviction, on the other hand, comes from the Spirit of God and is therapeutic in its intent and healing in its experience.

* When I sin, God lovingly convicts me because he wants to restore me to fellowship with him and prevent my spiraling headlong into even more or worse sin. I can wholehearted “agree” with God in his verdict – “You’re right. I have sinned. It’s bad.”, and give myself to God’s healing work in me.

* When I sin, “the accuser” maliciously shames me because he wants to make he hate myself, and cause me to distance myself from God and become unhappy and ineffective. This sin-shame-loathing paradigm is the one I have to reject – rejecting both the shame and the loathing.

It’s not that we take our sin lightly. Just listen to Nouwen’s words. They convey pain and a longing to do better – to be better, healthier. It’s just that we refuse to beat ourselves up. We refuse to listen to our enemy instead of our God. Think about King David’s response to his sin in Psalm 51. Confession yes, shame no. And if we reread Jim Elliot’s words, they are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words about being the “chief of sinners” – or “doing the things that he hates.” In each case we’re hearing a profound angst, a shockingly honest and bitter confession, but no self-flagellation.

It’s possible to be serious about sin, and to feel profound remorse for it, and angst when you look in the mirror, and yet not to embrace shame. These words from St. Jerome (345-420 A.D.) who had retreated to the desert to seek after God, illustrate that powerfully. He writes, “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the scorching sun so that it frightens even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome…. Many times I imagined myself witnessing the dancing of the Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. … I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations.” Notice, that he confesses that he has failed “many times” – and yet explicitly rejects shame: “I am not ashamed ….”

The choice to reject self-shaming is an important one. God doesn’t require self-shaming or want it. It’s counterproductive going forward, and it bypasses the path to healing. But what’s the alternative?

First, we need to allow for counterintuition. Self-shaming comes naturally to us. Refusing self-shaming and instead embracing conviction is counterintuitive. In high altitude mountain climbing you begin to feel sick, and desperately want to lay down, but that’s the worse thing you can do. You have to fight your instincts. You have to keep moving. In a similar way we have to renounce the shame that seems so natural.

Secondly, we have to embrace the conviction. For most of my Christian life, I’ve been taught to think at this point of 1 John 1:9. It’s a great verse, and appropriate here. But simply “confessing [naming] my sin” before God to enter back into fellowship with him is a treatment unequal to the disease. The confession brings the promised forgivenessbut doesn’t address the need for healing.

Third, we need to make ourselves available to God for healing. This is where we can return to Henri Nouwen. He tells us often of the need to find solitude and enter into silence. He tells us to spend time just being with God, offering up to him any weaknesses God reveals to us, and submitting ourselves to him for healing. In this way, our sin, rather than pushing us away from God, actually draws us to him. We come without fear of rejection. Indeed, we come because we have sinned. We come allowing him to reveal the harshest reality about us (Not just “What did I do?”, but “Why do I do that?”). We come “with expectation” that he will do this inner work in us. His care for me brings me to the point of a despair which is not despair, since in it I “… despair of myself in order that I may hope entirely in [God].” (Thomas Merton) In this process, if all goes well, we become “poor in spirit” – those who have nothing in themselves to commend themselves to God, but who can nevertheless feel confidence before him.

When we do this God responds with love and acceptance, and gently heals and restores us. (Like what Jesus did for Peter.) What we do transcends confession and petition. Instead we make time simply “to be” in God’s presence. We are just the “innkeeper, making room for the guest.” We attempt simply be present to him, and to whatever he wants to show us. He is in charge. Eugene Peterson’s words about worship apply to this kind of contemplative prayer. It’s what we do, he writes, to “… interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [It’s the] time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God … because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.” Selah.

Author Gary Moon explains that when we approach God in this way – in solitude, in silent listening, waiting humbly and with willingness to hear the worst about our condition, that this “… holds our shame at bay long enough for us to see ourselves as God sees us in Christ.” This is how the shame can be dispensed, and this is how we can become healthier. When we give God the “time and place” that Peterson speaks of, God is able to deal with the root issues of our sin – in addition to forgiving their nasty fruit.

What remains to be seen is – who will we believe? Whose estimate will we embrace? Jesus explained that the devil is our sworn enemy. His ministry is destruction and death. That’s why he tells us we are worthless. Jesus is our advocate. He loves us more than we know. His ministry is truth and life. That’s why he tells us we are precious. Only one of these can be true.

So, every time I am overtaken by some serious, mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, slap-your-head kind of sin, I have to choose. I should remember the stories about Nouwen and Elliot, and about King David and the Apostle Peter. Who did they listen to? Did they embrace shaming? No, it’s clear they didn’t. If they had we never would have heard of them.

And so how about me? Whose voice with I heed? Will I listen to the liar or the Lover? Who speaks the truth to me?

In that moment of testing I’m truly at a “two-roads-diverged-in-a-wood” type crossroads. Much is at stake. I need to choose carefully. We all do.

A Sense of Being Loved by God

“I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.” – Charles Wesley

I wonder sometimes why it’s so hard for me to feel loved, or to love someone else. Sometimes, when the intimacy level rises in some way – say, between me and my wife, even just in some subtle way in a conversation – I can perceive an almost imperceptible unease that comes over me. I think about how undemonstrative my parents were in many ways, and wonder if that’s the cause. Predictably, my next thought is a question – “Am I perpetuating this situation with my own children?” I’m not that demonstrative myself.

Some people just seem to rejoice in God’s love so easily. They feel it. It warms their hearts. It encourages them. How is that? Sometimes I secretly suspect that they’re just faking it. I’m usually all “up in my head.” I can give you all the proofs that God loves me, but I’m talking about feeling it. Sometimes I just suppose that if I were just less stiff-necked towards God, I would feel it then – but would I? Is this a common problem?

Anyway, in a time of silent prayer, I was listening for God to somehow give me something on this. It was real quiet. Then, I have to admit, I seemed to have sort of an epiphany as my love for my four sons came to mind. First, let me compare that parental love to married love.

In married love husband and wife become “one flesh.” Their interests are joined. As is often said as a wedding, “You’re joys and sorrows will be shared alike.” According to the Bible, their lives of active love lived for the each other should rise above the ups and downs of life. We’re called to love our spouses unconditionally, as God has loved us in Christ. We’re called to love each other (to take care of each other) as we care for ourselves. We must be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love in this way, which says something about us and the nature of man. Doesn’t it? We’ve chosen to live with one person from all the people who inhabit the planet – because we love that person – and we still have to be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love them. (And statistics and our experience prove the necessity of such divine insistence.) But here is what I want to consider – the “feeling” of love by married people. We know that feelings come and go, and that we can’t trust them to govern our choices. We know that acting in loving ways will often lead to loving feelings, and we know that feelings can be valuable to us in understanding ourselves and even what God is saying to us. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about how either spouse’s “feeling” love for the other is often conditional or contingent. It’s counter to instinct (It’s instinctive for me to love myself.), and it’s counter to the nature of things in a fallen world (which again is for me to focus on myself and my needs). I suppose this is just two ways of saying the same thing.

And this is where my love for my sons, and your love for your child or children come in. It seems to me that this love is quite different. I don’t have to be exhorted or commanded to love my sons, in fact the Bible assumes I will. Parents just love their children. (Take this like a Biblical proverb. Of course there are exceptions, but this is a generally true and reliable guide.) You might have a child who merits a bumper sticker proclaiming his greatness, or one you’d rather not talk about because he’s in rehab again or prison. You might have a child that is your best friend, or idolizes you, or you might have one that won’t come for holidays and wants nothing to do with you. No matter. In either case, if you’re a typical parent, you love that child more than anything in the world.

A parent’s love for a child differs from married love in just that way – and I’m talking now about active love (doing loving things) and feelings of love. A parent’s love isn’t conditional or contingent. There is nothing your child could do that would make you stop loving them. It’s not something we struggle to do, or need to be reminded to do. It’s something we can’t stop doing. Our acts of love flow out of these feelings of love – feelings that are rooted in instinct and the nature of things. (Even my natural inclination to put myself first, and my sinful selfish egocentrism fail to overcome this love of mine.) In almost all cases, parents love their children no matter what. It’s that simple. When the Bible says “as a Father has compassion on his children” it’s appealing to this obvious reality.

When I try to explain my love for my children in words, it sounds like this: I love them so much that it hurts. Probably until they have children of their own, and maybe not even for a long time then, they can’t even fathom it. I would do anything for them, including gladly giving my life. They mean more to me than anything in this world. I know I will always love them like this, and that nothing they could ever do or choose to be could change that. I wish them only the best, and one of the most painful things for me as their father, is wanting so much more for them and not having the ability to help them.

Well, this is the epiphany I mentioned earlier. It dawned on me. This painful love of a parent for his child is the way God loves me. I think this is the most powerful analogy that he makes – the parent-child analogy – not the husband-wife analogy to describe his love for us. (I’m aware that the church is the bride of Christ, and that God married his chosen people Israel, but the way these analogies work is different, and I don’t think they help as effectively with the question I’m raising.)

Am I “feeling” the love of God for me? I can think about Christ’s laying down his life for me. I can meditate on the significance of the bread and wine in the Last Supper. I can think about how fearfully and wonderfully made I am, or about how the Biblical story is all about him being “God with me” – and in this age, “God in me.” I can meditate on all these truths (and more!), and I should. But for me, what hits me on the most visceral level, is thinking that the way I love my sons is the way God loves me. There is no ought, no altruism, no struggle in that love of mine. It’s an incredible, unparalleled force of nature in the truest sense – and I mean that in this way, that God has created me in such a way that I will love my sons. That I will love my sons. And why would he do that? For the survival of the race, no doubt, but more importantly, so that I would understand his love for me. My feelings of love for my four sons reflect God’s desire that I would fathom my heavenly father’s love for me. That’s why I’m that way. God loves his children. I’m created in his image. I love my children. My feelings of love for my children – those instinctive, most powerful of all feelings – mirror how God feels about me. To this I can relate. This actually does help me to “feel” it and understand it in a unique way – and in a new way, maybe I can believe. It makes sense to me. I know these feelings of a parent. I know how powerful they are. I know how indestructible they are. They are “loyal love” feelings. These are God’s feelings towards me.

So, I’m “feeling” it more now, and each time I look at, or pray for, or think about my children, I’ll be feeling it again.

Standing in the Need of Prayer

Who am I – this person blogging about responding to hatred with love, practicing downward mobility at home, and waiting on God in silence in the midst of all kinds of circumstances and trials?

It’s me – a complicated, needy person. Or to put it more melodically:

“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord. Standing in the need of prayer.

Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me O Lord,

Standing in the need of prayer.”

And what characterizes me? Who is this who is “in the need of prayer?”

I made a list to attempt to describe myself:

ambitious and easily discouraged

driven and impatient

addicted to activity

moody and hopeful

critical and honest

compassionate and angry

lonely and defensive

loved and blessed, and

often sad.

I wrote this out yesterday, and I have to say that reviewing it today was painful.

Let’s just say that I’m practicing “full disclosure” (well, that’s a lie). Let’s say I’m practicing “some disclosure.” I have no illusions, and I hope you don’t either. I’m just a person figuring out a few things late in life, wanting to be a better homo sapien, and wanting to honor God. Sometimes I’m doing well, other times I’m not. The blog is my way to keep track of what I’m learning and attempting to practice – and sometimes, how I’m doing. A lot more happens when I write it down.

It’s a funny title for a song (“Standing in the Need of Prayer”). Prayer – sure, but who is supposed to pray? Is the singer asking for the prayers of others? That’s what it sounds like. Or is she preaching to herself? Or is this just a soulful cry for help – an admission that, “I’m in trouble here!” Or maybe it’s all of these. I’m gonna go with that. That works for me.

Henri Nouwen – Waiting on God as a Lifestyle

“Slow down, baby you’re going too fast
You got you hands in the air
With you feet on the gas”   India Arie, “Slow Down”

Waiting is unpopular, and usually considered a waste of time. “For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go.” (Henri Nouwen)  Nouwen paints a picture where some well-meaning soul is trying to quietly wait on God, and where bystanders are complaining, “Get going! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there…!” We live in a culture whose not-so-subtle assumption is that if you’re not producing – if you’re not doing something – that you’re useless. The corelary is that those who accomplish the most are the best and most valuable among us. It seems fairly obvious.

But from a Christian point of view, it’s messed up. In fact, Simone Weil makes waiting patiently in expectation  “… the foundation of the spiritual life.” And many others agree with her.

So what would it mean to “wait patiently”, or in the words of the Psalmist, to “wait quietly before God?” In his article A Spirituality of Waiting*, Henri Nouwen answers this question by speaking about “patient waiting” as an approach to each day – waiting as a lifestyle:

Waiting means living as though the moment is full, not empty.

Nouwen challenges us “to be present fully to the moment” – the moment we’re in right now. We do this rather than dismissing it as insignificant or “empty.” It’s our nature to think God will do “the real thing” somewhere else, at some other time, or for someone else. In “active waiting” I trust that my moment is pregnant with possibility because God is ever at work. I stay where I am “… and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself….” The focus is on the present. Believing something can happen there – and looking for that – waiting for that.

This is more than “mindfulness.” It’s trusting that God is still at work creating, redeeming, sanctifying and revealing himself. It’s me learning to regularly ask myself, “What might God want to do right here, right now? The moment as I see it might be boring, frightening, confusing or just tediously routine – but what might God want to do in it anyway? Let me be open to that.

Waiting means giving up all my [necessarily futile] attempts to control my world.

In waiting we give up all our attempts to control our future. Instead of trying to manage everything so that (for instance) “This day will go as it should.”, we release everything to him, knowing that he has something better for us. (It’s not that we can control anything anyway, but that doesn’t keep us from trying, and we need to stop that.) As we wait this way, we take our rightful place as creatures, and as God’s children (loved and privileged but not his adviser). We leave what’s happening now, and what will happen later, to him – the one who loves us and works in all things for our good. Whatever he wants. We wait on him in the moment. He acts in the moment. We accept what he does and embrace it. Isn’t this what the psalmist means when he says, “This is the day that he Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.”? Suddenly instead of being the inspiration for a Vacation Bible School ditty, the verse reflects a “very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.” Our days and our moments are full with possibility, because God is in control. Rather than fighting him for control, we can “be glad” and wait to see what things he will do – things which are “infinitely more than we might ask or think.”

Waiting means practicing hope and letting go of wishes.

If “waiting” is the foundation of the spiritual life (Weil), then hope is the foundation of waiting. Waiting rests upon hope. This is evident, for example, in Psalm 62:5, “Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him.” After 166 pages of a study on waiting, Ben Patterson concludes, “More basic than patience or perseverance are humility and hope.” In this regard, Nouwen warns against wishing. We wish for better weather, that our pain would stop, etc. We wish and wait because “We want the future to go in a very specific direction….”. Instead, Nouwen commends Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary to us as examples of how we must hope and not merely wish. “Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes.” Immediately after this, Nouwen says, “I have found it very important in my own life, to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” The statement almost seems comical, like an ironic Facebook post by a Christian hipster. But it’s not. It’s neither comical nor ironic. What Nouwen speaks of is very difficult, and very important.

The moment is full with possibility. We refuse to think that it’s best if we can control it. We let God do what he will do – avoiding any drama we might otherwise create, while we rest upon what is certain, true, and wonderful. In all this – in our difficult, counter intuitive, radical “waiting project”, we experience more rather than less of what God has for us as we cast aside our useless wishes, and hope in his promises.

Jesus suggested that each day we pray “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why then, shouldn’t we expect kingdom power to enter the moments and circumstances of our “common” days “on earth?” Why wouldn’t the moments be full, when we know that God is answering this and innumerable other prayers of his people? Why wouldn’t the moments be full when his work of redeeming this planet of ours – and it’s people – continues? The Kingdom Of Promise is yet to come, but at the same time continues to arrive “in our midst” – on this day, in this place – where I am. And so I wait.

_______________________

*All quotes are from Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting” unless otherwise noted.

Postscript: I’ve tried to develop a “next steps” approach to supplement Nouwen’s more conceptual (and brilliant) approach. My goal is to create an action plan where circumstances of the day function as “triggers” to bring me back to a place of waiting when I begin to drift. Here is a link to that.