A Contemplative Posture in a Bicentennial Campaign

I was watching a video of Fr. Thomas Keating a while back, soaking up his images of prayer and contemplative awareness.  You can find a lot of videos such as this on You Tube, and it’s amazing what resources are at our fingertips.  Fr. Thomas was describing the grounding of silence that is essential in understanding and practicing the contemplative tradition within Christianity, and he threw out this image that has hooked me.  Both Cynthia and I have used it in sermons since then.

Fr. Thomas described the posture of prayer as “grasping with open hands.”

Open Hands

It has become an extremely important image for me as I continue to delve into my own contemplative practice.  It is a powerful image that challenges me not only in my particular times of prayer and silence, but also in my every-day ministry as the rector of Grace Episcopal Church.

You see, we have stepped into the discernment and planning stage of our Bicentennial Campaign with energy and enthusiasm.  In 2028, Grace will be 200 years old, and there was much consensus around using this decade as an intentional time of listening, planning, and embodiment.  What if we took a decade to listen deeply and embody faithfully the Spirit’s call upon our lives?  What if we “did” this Bicentennial Campaign a different way, integrating community ministry partnerships, campus enhancements, sustainability plans, and endowment into one comprehensive campaign?  How could we invite the entire community to take part in this shared experience?

Above all, what if we took what I call a contemplative posture in this shared work?  I kept going back to something Tilden Edwards wrote, that I used in my doctoral thesis, where he described what was possible with such a contemplative posture–in all facets of parish ministry.  Tilden said,

Within us there is a capacity for touching reality more directly than the thinking mind.  It is activated when we’re willing to let go of the thoughts that come through our mind and to sit in the spacious openness that appears between and behind them (Tilden Edwards, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth, 6).

Let go.  Openness.  Grasping with open hands.

In my past experience, capital campaigns are so often fixed on the externals, on what the finish product will be.  A large amount of money is raised in a specific period of time to accomplish some expansion within a community’s life.  They are remarkable focus points for a community, times when everyone is invited to take a part in reorienting or redeveloping the life of a group of people.

I like capital campaigns, but they also make me very nervous–not because I fear failing to meet the capital milestone, but because I am unsure of how my own vocation as a priest helps lead the community at this pivotal time.  If you know me, you know that I am not the most left-brained person in the room.  How would I navigate and direct this massive undertaking in this community that was depending on me?

Grace nave 2

Grace is an amazing community, and I pinch myself each day when I drive away from our house to go do what the rector of Grace Church gets to do.  It is a deep, deep privilege…

Recently, I had found myself anxious, looking ahead to the scale and scope of what lay before us in this campaign.  All the moving parts and all the individual pieces of this endeavor swirled around my head, and my heart started to feel heavy and stressed.  I was missing something.   I had forgotten something.

I remembered back to my second week at Grace, back in 2014, when I went to visit the incredible folks at Lanier Village Estates.  The Village People, as I call them, are embodiments of wisdom and holy humor.  They know…

At the first Wednesday Eucharist I shared with them, a remarkable woman named Carolyn suddenly walked up to me and put both hands on my shoulders.  With knowing eyes, she stared into mind and said, “We are glad you are here.  Just don’t forget: don’t get sucked into all the administrative pieces.  We don’t need you to do that.  We have teams of people who can share with you in that.  We need you to do what you can do.”

“Yes Ma’am,” I told her.

But how easy I forget.  I know as the rector of the parish, I am responsible for the life and health of this remarkable community of a thousand souls.  But, I’m not the only one responsible.  I had started to forget that.  I had started grasping on too tightly, and my body was telling me something.  My soul was starting to feel pressure because of my own grasping and “wanting it all to work out.”  As if it were up to me…  My ego was rubbing its hands together looking around at all the things we might accomplish and build.  And, that’s never good.

Prayer is like grasping with open hands…

releasing dove

A spiritual community is an amazing thing.  To have a gathering of persons coming together to share their gifts and strengths, in a posture of listening and praying–that is Beauty.  To be vulnerable with one another enough to say “I do not think I have the specific gifts to manage this, but I see them in you.  Can we talk about this together?”–that is a Goodness.  To be vulnerable and able to open our hearts to the deeper realization of what it means to be the Body of Christ together, with shared gifts (St. Paul tries and tries to explain this…)–that is Truth.

So, last week we had a planning meeting with both the Vestry and the Bicentennial Steering Committee.  I met with my Senior Warden, Jason, for lunch before and told him all this: that I was heavy, that I had grasped too tightly, that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed at the details, that I wanted to serve out of my vocation rather than trying to micromanage and push through.  Thank God for him, and for Ben, our Junior Warden, and, well, for the entire community.

And, I shared this with the entire group that evening, as I shared with them that I envisioned my particular role in this enterprise to concentrate on the formation of the community: to listen, to call us to prayer, to remind us of our deeper yearning, our deeper desire to experience God’s love and share God’s love in the world, to offer spaces of silence and deep conversation.  To wonder.  To love.

And I thought of this image by the phenomenal English Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore:

God is a god of desire, not of power and prestige, and Jesus knew God as the object of all our deepest desires–for joy, for laughter, and the love of friends, for sexual fulfillment.  All of his life and teaching can be summarized as encouraging us to allow our innate desire, which is also God’s desire for us, to break through our fear and self-loathing.  And sin is that fear, fear of desire, fear of life and fear of falling into God. (Sebastian Moore, OSB, The Contagion of Jesus, 120).

How we yearn for those moments when we have the chance to consider the big questions–the only questions worth asking.  I tried to capture this feeling in a charcoal and pastel that I call “Monk and Moon.”

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Here’s what I experienced in our meeting: the ones who have extraordinary administration skills, organizational skills, and analysis all stepped up to claim their own vocations.   The entire group stepped up and began wondering together how to frame and organize and develop.  There was energy and enthusiasm bouncing around the table.  The ones with the gift of calendaring, thank God for them.  The ones with gifts of calming, thank God for them.  The ones with the gifts of financial fearlessness, thank God for them.  The realists.  The dreamers.  The pokers and prodders.

We entered into a new space as a community, one in which we claimed even more the charisms of those sitting around the table.  One where everyone had a place.  One where we could work as a team, as a spiritual community seeking to reach out and let the Spirit take us where She in mind.

And my role, my vocation in the midst of this fantastic dance?  Well, perhaps that’s more of a Zen koan than a clear, rational answer.  What a privilege to be a priest here with these folks…

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