The Balancing Act of Being and Doing (Anxiety and Prayer, part 2)

By Joe LaGuardia

In her memoir Leaving Church, spiritual author Barbara Brown Taylor talks about churches walking the fine line between putting people to work and encouraging people to take Sabbath rest, promoting spiritual growth and affirming that God loves us as we are, and attracting people to come to worship while being passionate about sending people out to join Christ at work in the world.

If churches get off balance on one side — say on the Sabbath, the affirmation, and the sending — then we make Christianity come off too easily, discipleship without a cost as the German ethicist Bonhoeffer might say.  Teeter to the other side — the works, the growth, and the gathering — then we threaten to forget that our faith is just as much about being as it is doing.

Taylor writes, “I thought that being faithful was about becoming someone other than who I was . . . and it was not until this project failed that I began to wonder if my human wholeness might be more useful to God than my exhausting goodness.”

In other words, what good are we to be ministers and missionaries of the gospel if we are exhausted all of the time—how do we, as a church, find that balance?

I found this question pertaining to balance lingering under the biblical words that span from Isaiah 62 to Isaiah 63.  In Isaiah 62, God encourages Israel to put restlessness to good use (I address this more fully in part 1 of this series) .  When we are restless or working hard, anxious or unable to focus, Isaiah says to use that energy to pray.  “Take no rest,” Isaiah says to Israel, “all you who pray to the Lord, and give the Lord no rest until he completes his work” (v. 6).

In Isaiah 63, the prophet invokes a different strategy—those who focus on the Lord and righteousness by turning restless minds and busy hands towards the Lord in prayer, will in fact find Sabbath rest in the Lord just as God’s people did centuries before:

“As with cattle going down into a peaceful valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest” (v. 14).

As leaders in the church, we are stewards of a complex and growing congregation—the more programming and people we attract, the more we are called on to serve or to delegate that service.  My prayer, however, is that church—and the things that you do individually—is life-giving.  I hope that it is a source of joy and, when restlessness does come your way, it motivates you to pray, seek Sabbath rest, and seek the Lord’s face.

Ministry is about who we are, not only about what we do.  Fourteenth-century Mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote that what we do should not form who we are; rather, who we are ought to embolden what we do.   We have to put the horse before the cart, and get our spiritual ducks in a row before releasing the ducks to take flight.  Let’s not neglect the balance that the Lord calls us all to  have as we live—together as a church—in Christ.

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Turn Anxiety, Restlessness into Prayer (part 1)

By Joe LaGuardia

Because I love Zion, I will not keep still.  Because my heart yearns for Jerusalem, I cannot remain silent.  I will not stop praying for her until her righteousness shines like the dawn…O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually.  Take no rest, all you who pray to the Lord” (Isaiah 62:1, 6 NLT).

I have grown up in the church assuming that restlessness was not a good thing.  I have struggled with anxiety, and it comes out in various restless ways: fidgeting, pacing, reading everything in sight, moving about.  I have also resisted this anxiety in various ways: prayer, contemplation, meditation, Bible Study, relaxation techniques, vacations, and television.

But it has been a long journey and, after a dissertation on spiritual formation and many silent retreats, that restlessness is still difficult to ignore and remains just under the surface of my life.

Perhaps this restlessness is not something that is all that bad, however.  Maybe it is just as much a part of me as is God’s image in which I was created.  People say that God doesn’t make junk, so maybe that restlessness is a part of God’s design for me.

Recently, I was reading my Bible during my devotions and stumbled on some verses in Isaiah that caught my attention (62:1-6; see above).  This portion of Isaiah records a time when Israel was all but lost in exile.  There was judgment, but hope was on the way.  Destruction and diaspora were imminent, but God promised a new age when Israel would return to Jerusalem and live in peace among all nations.

Isaiah 62 speaks of restoration not by way of war, but by prayer.  God promises to set up watchmen who will pray “continually”.  It invites others to pray without rest, and stresses prayer as a way to keep God from resting too (v. 7).  Restlessness was not something to avoid, but to use on behalf of interceding for God’s people and the nation, for the culmination of God’s promises to come.

This I read in the New Spirit-Filled Life Study Bible.  The inspirational devotion related to this text states that Isaiah was “alert to the character and ways of God” as he takes “stock with a spirit of urgent restlessness, refusing to keep silent before God” (p. 883).  Restlessness, in short, encourages a “true Spirit of prayer.”

I never imagined that my restlessness–this unyielding demon with whom I’ve wrestled my whole life–may in fact be an angel urging me to pray for others, for God to act, and for revival in my own community and church.  Rather than rustling in the bed at night, perhaps I need to pray.  Instead of fidgeting, I should clasp my hands and bow my head to talk to God.  Rather than pacing, I should praise God for “delighting” in us and calling us his beloved (Isaiah 62:4).

It is a novel thought, and perhaps I’ll try it.  Are you restless?  If so, use it as fuel to pray.  You too may be the watchman or watchwoman that God has called to intercede on behalf of loved ones, neighbors, and the lost in your midst.

Getting back to basics

By Joe LaGuardia

It is important for Christians — clergy included — to get back to basics sometimes.  You go through the journey of faith, learn new things, meet new people, take on new ministries and adventures.  Life happens, and it seems that life happens too quickly.  You have to slow down.  You may need a season to get back to basics.

This happens to me about once a year.  I read books, write sermons, have conversations, go on retreats, pray and do Bible studies–personally and in groups–but then I hit a personal spiritual wall, and I long for simpler times.  I usually devote a few months to read something that is basic, a beginners-type of book.  Sometimes it is on the Bible, other times it is on spiritual formation–usually something tied to fields related to my doctoral work.

A couple years ago, I read Spiritual Theology by Diogenes Allen.  I picked it up from a Catholic bookstore in Georgia, and regretted that I did not know the book existed before then.  It would have been mighty useful for my dissertation (on spiritual formation and caregivers) back in 2008-2009.  It was a great, basic book on spirituality.  It brought be back to the basics, a good refresher in more familiar waters.

This past season I’ve been reading An Introduction to the Old Testament by James King West.  Published in 1980, some of the scholarship is dated and it is from an ecumenical school of thought, but the writing is good and I am enjoying West’s archeological and anthropological insights.

I am editing and publishing a book of essays on the Old Testament, so I am also reading the introduction to make sure I have all of my facts straight.  Thanks to this basic book, which I picked up at my local used-book store for a dollar, I already found one error in my own book– it was Amnon, not Absalom, who raped Tamar.  If I remember correctly, I think Absalom might have killed Amnon for it.

Getting back to basics helps us remember information that can get lost in translation over time.  It can also correct falsehoods that entangle us or befuddle us–not because we intend to believe things that are false, but because when we juggle too much information, it tends to meld together.  It helps us re-align our priorities and put first-things first.  For a preacher who has a head full of stuff, I find that getting back to basics helps me de-clutter in my brain.

This is not just for preachers.  A seasons-cleaning can help us in our relationship with Jesus too.  Sometimes we study about Jesus so much, we forget to spend time with Jesus in a personal way.  We talk about God or study God’s Word often, but forget to make time for God in prayer and worship.  Getting back to the basics strips us of all the chaff that clogs our spiritual arteries in this information, hyper-technological age.

What do you need to do to get back to basics?  What does Jesus want you to jettison in your knowledge about him because it gets in the way of getting closer to him?