“You brought me out into an open place;
you rescued me because you delighted in me.”
– Psalm 18:20 (The Saint Helena Psalter)
I’ve been thinking lately about a conversation I once had with someone who was just looking for something else in their life. They were super successful in their (very meaningful, life-changing) work. They served on lots of boards and church committees, and were truly making a difference in the world. They were Exhibit A in how Christian love can be acted out in the world. But it wasn’t enough; God was pushing them toward something, it was just unclear what. God wasn’t calling them to take on 30 minutes of contemplative prayer every day or train for a marathon or tithe. It seemed like maybe God was just inviting them to do… less. The fact that the next spiritual challenge wasn’t a challenge was the hard part.
It’s easy to explain to someone why they should pray about taking on more: there are injustices to fight, there are lonely people to befriend, there are fears to conquer. Less poetically: there are parish dinners to plan, food pantries to operate, lawn mowing volunteers to organize. It’s not so often you find yourself with someone who seems to need to consider the opposite. Circling and circling, finally I stumbled with them on the image of open space. They needed to be able to clear a field to see what God would plant there. There were already sweet fruit trees and beautiful flowers. There were nutritious vegetables and hardy roots. But there was no fallow space: they needed to be able to be surprised by God.
We all love to misquote Teresa of Avila—“God has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours.” Talk about high pressure! It’s hard to admit to ourselves that just because something is a worthy task it doesn’t mean you’re the one who has to do it. Busyness is where Christian altruism and spirituality collide at full speed. Nobody wins.
My own commitment to busyness (I was not exactly speaking out of experience in that conversation) recently came skidding to a halt. Earlier this year my family moved for my husband to take a new position as rector of a large parish about 2 ½ hours away from where I grew up and where my parents still live (a part of the country where I am delighted to live again). After 8 months, I have still not settled into a ministry position. There are interesting possibilities—that was one of the reasons we thought this would be a good move—but the Holy Spirit is taking her sweet time. I’ve found myself placed in the Open Space for far longer than I had intended to. The thing that echoed most loudly in this emptiness is that I have taken a break from the myth of my own indispensability.
When I started in parish ministry 13 years ago, I was sure that the key to my place in the world was work. No longer The Rector, I’ve had to discover that the sun still comes up in the morning even when I have nowhere in particular to be. I have writing projects, I have hobbies, I have kids I get to spend more time with. But there is not a lot of urgency. Whether the parish super-volunteer or the clergy, we have all known people in the church who are sure everything will collapse if not for them. I know priests who haven’t taken a vacation in a decade because they are convinced things would fall apart if they were to take a Sunday off. They may not be wrong: things may fall apart. But it’s the height of hubris to assume that God is incapable of helping God’s people paste things back together, with or without you.
Probably there are people who are able to learn this lesson without eight months of unplanned unemployment. I evidently was not one of them.
The Open Space is not a permanent destination. I am very aware of the many reasons that our unexpected shift to living on one income has held spiritual gifts rather than unmitigated financial disaster (the fact that we moved from Boston to Pittsburgh and not vice versa, for starters). And while there are gifts to be had, of course this is not ideal. Still, there is much to be grateful for this week, even as the sabbath of holidays isn’t a sabbath from work.
There is a lot growing in this field, and I intend to eat—and share—every last bite. Happy Thanksgiving.
Are you giving thanks in unexpected circumstances this year?
What helps you to focus on God’s presence?