The irony of it is that now, just a few days later, I’m not sure I could really tell you what it was that had me so distracted that afternoon.
Probably just garden-variety pastoral concerns: taking inventory of what had yet to be done in preparation for the following Sunday; struggling in my mind with the wording of some part or another in the sermon; or lamenting all the other varied priorities and ideas that, try as I might, never seem to move from back burner to front. Like I say, I’m really not sure at this point; simply that at this particular moment I’d begun to feel a bit overwhelmed. And as the dog and I were in the midst of our mid-afternoon constitutional it suddenly hit me that I was not only missing a golden opportunity but also inadvertently neglecting a first priority: that of prayer.
And I ought to know better. I’m reminded here of something Eugene Peterson said in article on “The Pastor’s Life of Prayer:”
“If I vainly crowd my day with conspicuous activity or let others fill my day with imperious demands, I don’t have time to do my proper work, the work to which I have been called. How can I lead people into the quiet place beside the still waters if I am in perpetual motion? How can I persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if I have to juggle my schedule constantly to make everything fit into place? I know I can’t be busy and pray at the same time. I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted or dispersed.”
Good and powerful words, not only for clergy-types (this one most especially), but also for any who would endeavor to make true faith an integral part of their daily lives. In many ways, our greatest challenge as Christians has always been to practice our faith beyond the time and place of gathered worship. This is a challenge grounded in our understanding of scripture, our Protestant tradition and our strong belief in “the priesthood of all believers;” as I am quick to point out from most every pulpit I am privileged to occupy, we are all ministers, each one of us in our own way, set apart by God for unique ministries in the places where we dwell, and thus witnesses of the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ amongst family, friends and the wide array of folk whose lives we touch simply by our presence, often doing so without even realizing it.
It’s a great and joyous responsibility, but at times overwhelming, and so it requires nourishment. Indeed, just as we make sure our children have a good breakfast before they head out the door in the morning, it’s of equal importance that you and I be properly fed before setting out to the varied tasks of ministry throughout the day. An average day of work, school or even leisure can be, to say the very least, taxing; filled with conflict, confrontation, temptations, quick decisions and a plethora of crises both major and minor. It’s all too easy to lose our focus and inadvertently put faith on the back burner, which not only puts us at a disadvantage but also risks compromising our own ministry as it gets lost in the chaos. So, in the words of the hymn, it’s vitally important both “for the facing of this hour” and “for the living of these days” that each of us to find ways to daily open ourselves to God’s presence and guidance.
Or, to put it more simply, let us pray!
It always amazes me, particularly on those days that have become so full and convoluted as to become almost overwhelming, just how much good it does me to just stop – even for a few brief moments on the way – for prayer. It serves not only as a brief respite from the world’s noise and confusion, but moreover it’s an opportunity to find renewal and empowerment for doing God’s work of love in that world. It also helps us to loosen the grip that so many of us are determined to keep hold on our lives: the late Henri Nouwen, in fact, once made the apt comparison of an attitude of prayer to the opening of a tightly clenched fist. If your hands are shut tight, he wrote, not only can you not do anything constructive with them, you also cannot put anything in them; but if your hands are open, they are ready to receive that which is given. Prayer enables us to open our hands, and indeed our hearts, that we might receive all that God has to give us, using these divine gifts in answering Christ’s call to love and service.
Simply put, the constancy of our prayer cannot help but keep us focused, deepening our commitment to Christ in the process! Admittedly, this is one spiritual discipline that, in the wake of the many fleeting moments of distraction that come and go in my own life, I’m still in the process of learning. But I can tell you this: it makes a profound difference in everything when I remember.
All I know is that once that afternoon walk became a venue for some informal prayer, my head was cleared and my spirit was fed.
And though I won’t speak for him, I suspect the dog and I were both the better for it.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry