The Snowmass Trip: Thursday evening

First of all, Houston is hot.  I just had to say that.  The University of St. Thomas is a gem.  This is a photo of the chapel at night…notice the entrance.

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I have no idea if these thoughts are helpful to anyone else, but they help me capture impressions and thoughts, images and questions, before I lose them in tomorrow’s conversations.  Already, it feels a bit like drinking from a fire hose–albeit a wonderfully contemplative one.

This evening at dinner, I shared a remarkable conversation with Sarah from Canberra, Australia (who will share in the NCE conversations at Snowmass), Judy, from Trinidad, and Nancy, from Jacksonville, FL.  I finally just stopped eating so I could focus intently as we kept sharing these glimpses from our lives.

A bit of backstory: you should know that a long-standing family moved from Grace to another parish last week, and it has bothered me.  “Bothered” is such a weird way to describe it, because it has been a mixture of frustration, confusion, and sadness.  The matriarch of the family came to see me to tell me in person that they were leaving–for which I am very grateful, because that gave us the opportunity to at least have a dialogue.  She had a few personal thoughts about my abilities and leadership style which I truly heard and were worth the relationship, but the thing that hooked me was when she paused and said, “I’m tired of discernment.  You need to choose another word and focus on something else.  I’m almost 80 years old.”

That one hooked me, because “discernment” has been at the heart of what I have sought to nurture for four years now.  It is a core value, to put it that way.  A key focus point.

Tired of discernment?  I felt like the train came off the rails…

So, tonight, I shared this story with the three dinner-mates, as we wondered together what it means to seek this contemplative orientation in our various vocations, whether clergy or lay.  Doesn’t matter at the end of the day, does it?

While I was chewing a piece of broccoli, Sarah shared some of her experience in Australia forming a new community explicitly oriented around meditation within the Christian tradition, and she told stories of conversations with folks in her community.  There have been times, she said, when she realized that “discernment” was at the core of her work as a spiritual leader within the community, yet there were other focus points within the other community members.  There were other grounding elements, other concerns, other passions, etc.  Sometimes people pushed back a bit against this refrain of discernment.  How to balance these?

Because, as we shared with one another, such a contemplative posture, such a practice of discernment requires a certain degree of vulnerability that is rooted in a practice of prayer.  We started asking each other questions:

Can you truly engage in this level of discernment without having some experience or grounding in a standing practice of prayer?  Without such a practice, does discernment work overwhelm you?  Alienate you?  Even shame you if you sense that others “get it” and you feel you don’t?

And, I wondered with them if what was really going on was that this matriarch was not equipped or comfortable with this space of vulnerability.

Did I “do” what I needed to do to help nurture the soil of prayer out of which our spiritual practices can grow and bear fruit?

Did I “invert” the “order” of what we “should” have done at Grace when we began with the conversations and the discernment–rather than spend these first few years in much more focused prayer and silence?

Could we have settled in this space of silence and prayer earlier than now, given the particular dynamics of this community and the healing that needed to begin?  Did we need to step into this discernment within the community in order to build a certain degree of momentum?

Did I miss an opportunity to ask about this matriarch’s practices of prayer?  What prayer was to her?  What sustains her?  Would we have been able to share this conversation?

At this point, after chewing on this for the past five hours (the questions, not the broccoli), I’m going to assume that we needed to do what we did.  I’m going to assume that the Spirit was at work in our shared discernment, because I do indeed see the fruit that has been born.  We didn’t do anything wrong…and I am grateful beyond words for what we have shared as I look toward beginning my fifth year as the rector.

Yet.

It is apparent to me now–my heart is convicted–that we must engage in this essential element of prayer within the community in order to sustain, nurture, encourage, develop, foster the further work the Spirit is inviting us to explore.  These essential practices of prayer…

And, it is more apparent to me now that my particular role as the rector of this community is to call us all to that space of prayer–even as I continue to devote myself to it.  This prayer practice lies at the heart of my vocation as the rector of Grace Church, and I recognize the tension that, of course, will be present given the institutional responsibilities that I have.  Yet…these tensions are, in reality, creative and not restrictive tensions.  They give me a deeper awareness of what is possible when we collectively re-imagine the way we arrange ourselves within the community of prayer.

I’ll write more, but I wanted to hold this here–because there’s a great deal more to reflect on.

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