Beyond Words

While on a road trip last week I listened to a few podcasts by Ruth Haley Barton from her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership series. In one of them she talked about communing with God, as opposed to communicating with God. It’s easy to settle for communicating with God–pouring out my heart, submitting my list of requests, and then moving on with my life without waiting for or being attentive to God’s response.  What might it look like to really commune with God…?

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…     -Genesis 3:8

Can you imagine walking in the garden with God in the cool of the day?

A few years ago as I was “communicating” with God, I asked him to help me learn to listen. I knew well my tendency during a conversation to be thinking about what I wanted to say rather than truly listening to what the other person was sharing. It’s rude and dismissive, shutting down the opportunity for vulnerability and meaningful conversation. My communication with God was not much different. I was convicted of my need to change, but also of my powerlessness to do it without some divine intervention! So I asked for help…then went on with my life…which happened to include becoming a spiritual director. Much of the coursework for spiritual direction revolves around listening, so for two years I read book after book and had plenty of opportunities to practice active listening. Real change, however, felt pretty elusive.

But as I’ve reflected on that podcast differentiating between communing and communication, I realize that I more often commune with God these days than ever before. It comes at the strangest times…

  • as I watch the critters in our back yard–a chipmunk, squirrels, and a bevy of birds–all gathered together on and under the birdfeeders to gather nuts and seeds
  • as I meander down to the garden to harvest peas or lettuce and am surprised to see another plant has burst its pod and pushed its way up through the dirt, opening itself to the sun
  • as I sit in my prayer garden in the early morning quiet and simply listen to the sounds around me–all sorts of birdsong, the splashing of a robin taking her bath, squirrels rustling in the bushes, the buzz of bees as they pollinate my flowers
  • as I marvel at the fireflies that light up the back yard as the sun goes down, to the accompaniment of a mourning dove’s soft coo

…and my heart feels so full of wonder that the God of the universe has created such beauty, and has given me eyes to see and ears to hear. And suddenly I’m intensely aware of his gentle, loving presence all around me and rising up within me all at the same time. That’s the moment when I know I’ve finally found my way from communication to communion, from talking at God to intimacy with God…when Love is so powerful that words are no longer necessary.

My prayer for you today is that you will slow down and create time and space to set aside communication in favor of communion with our Creator God, and in so doing you would know the intimacy of that Love which is deeper than words.

 

It’s Oxygen

My pastor and I were discussing our church’s systems yesterday, defining what is a system and what is not. This conversation was generated by a publication by Nelson Searcy, Healthy Systems, Healthy Church (www.ChurchLeaderInsights.com). The concept is really pretty simple: just as the body is made up of several systems–circulatory, musculoskeletal, digestive, endocrine, etc–so is the church. We were evaluating our systems, exploring whether we define our church’s systems in the same way as Searcy and whether there are others we should add.

It was an interesting exercise, especially when the subject of prayer came up. Should we consider prayer a system? Returning to the human body metaphor, I suggested that oxygen is essential to the proper functioning of the human body. It is carried in the blood throughout the body, giving it life. While it is a major factor in the respiratory system, it is equally integral to the circulatory system, the musculoskeletal system, and so on. Yet it is not a system in and of itself.

Prayer is to the church what oxygen is to the human body. It gives life.

If we are honest, in the fast pace of ministry today it’s really a challenge to give prayer the time and space it needs, isn’t it? Case in point: Our church is tackling some tough questions regarding our location in the future. We currently meet in “borrowed space,” but the desire to have a place of our own has been surfacing repeatedly and the question begs to be answered whether it is time to begin the process of finding our own building. There are nine people on our leadership team and we are struggling to nail down a date when we can meet together for an extended time of listening prayer. Yet, without hearing from God, we can not know how to proceed.

My point is this: How is the prayer life of your church, your ministry? When is the last time you gathered together with your leaders to simply sit together and listen to God for awhile? Not just the perfunctory prayer at the beginning of a meeting. No, I mean for the entire meeting. What would it look like if each ministry area of your church engaged in such listening prayer on a regular basis? Think again of the human body and prayer as oxygen-rich blood that brings vitality to every “organ”–ministry–as it circulates through. Can you imagine the energy-producing, life-giving effect?

Nelson Searcy makes the point that good systems function under the surface to keep things running smoothly. Prayer–regular, deliberate, listening prayer–is the first step in making your systems “good.” As we begin this new year, I encourage you to evaluate the systems of your church in light of the life-giving oxygen of prayer. Sit quietly and listen. Breathe in…long, slow, deep. As you feel the rich oxygen invigorate your body, so it will be with your church.