Turn Anxiety, Restlessness into Prayer

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.

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Sabbath happens when we reach the end of our words (and worlds)

By Joe LaGuardia

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

All that we do
Is touched with ocean, yet we remain
On the shore of what we know.
(Richard Wilbur)

pad

I.

Words are the most valuable resources we pastors have.  I agree with Walter Brueggemann who wrote that we use words to “engage in world making.”  Our words carry great power.  They dismantle, dismember, and deconstruct; they rebuild, plant, co-create, and heal.  Words breathe into being new worlds, new realities, new beginnings.  They midwife opportunities for second, third, and infinite chances.

That is what happens when we use words with our congregations and in the public square.  We write our prayers, draft manuscripts.  Some of us are so good at preaching only an outline is needed.  Words nevertheless. We interpret the Bible–more words stacked upon mere ancient words.  I am at a word processor this very moment wrapping a gift yet again; this time for you, dear reader.

But what happens when we go before God in our personal life?  What happens when we enter our interior space where time rather than words carry greater power?  How do we utter words before God, before our family?  For, in the presence of God, our words and wisdom wither into foolishness.  Our power crumbles like idols before a cross that is symbol to God’s power; weakness turned on its head for sure.

We are silenced, and it is Sabbath that shuts our mouths.  Sabbath replaces our confidence with uncertainty, it sends our cliches out to sea.  God confronts our solutions with ever deeper Mystery and the work of unwording.

The goal of Sabbath is summed up in Palm 46: “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

This is difficult for pastors who make a living doing ministry and engaging in church as a career.  It’s easier to avoid Sabbath because when we enter into it, God forces us (like a stubborn musician teaching her apprentice) to play (with) the silences as well as the notes.

It is Sabbath–and unwording silence–that we fear most because in Sabbath our words lose meaning and the ability to control.  It’s where we face what T. S. Eliot calls the “undisciplined squads of emotions.”  Words fail us, and our boats bump up against the horizon like Truman Burbank’s boat did in The Truman Show.  “Silence,” opined Mark Burrows, “is the primary condition of our beginning and ending” that forces us to face our fragility and fate.

Question: So what do we do when we are confident with only one-half of our calling (to lead congregations and do contextual ministry), but constantly (and consistently) shy away from the other half of our calling–to journey into ourselves, confront Divine Mystery, be silenced, and remember who and whose we are?

Answer:  We must keep practicing it.  Only when we row that boat do we break through and go beyond the horizon that we’ve made for ourselves.  We put down our blueprints, our hammers and utility belts and give them back to God.  We have to toss the pencil that rests behind our ears or the pen that finds a warm home in our breast pocket.  We must enter into the Architect’s home instead and relearn what it means to be malleable in the hands of the Potter.

II.

There are three steps that help us confront and enter Sabbath.  The first step is to realize that the cultivation of an interior life–the life that Sabbath is all about–is a part of our calling.  Our calling to lead is not divorced from our calling to follow no more than our calling to surrender is no less important than our calling to serve.

Prayer, lectio divina, devotions, personal worship, journaling, silence, meditation, “quiet times,” and other spiritual disciplines of the church are just as important as our words.  They, too, make us who we are–and we get paid to practice them if not master at least one or two of them.

Yes, we are prophets, preachers, pastors–but ordained ministry is also about being mystic.  If we don’t practice Sabbath, we are abusing our church’s trust, deceiving the human resources department, and getting a full-day’s paycheck but only doing half the work.

The second step is to reorient our ministry to lead, preach, and pastor outward from Sabbath.  This is difficult for us Protestants who see Sabbath as the last day of the week rather than the first day of the week.  Sabbath is not an afterthought so much as it is the very center from whence God sends us.

We follow the likes of…

Brother Lawrence, who asked God to invite him into the world of ministry, joined God, and then, in turn, invited God to join him in the mundane tasks and routines of every-day living.

Henri Nouwen, who sought silence as the only real way to hear a word from God.  “The Word of God,” he wrote in The Way of the Heart, “is born out of the eternal silence of God.”  It was silence that was the pregnant mystery from which God gives our next marching order, and it is only silence that can teach us how to speak: “A word with power is a word that comes out of silence.”

St. John (of Patmos) whose ministry to the seven churches of Asia Minor erupted and founds its inspiration from a Revelation he received in a cave–a symbol of the interior life if there ever was one.

Jesus, who ministered only after meeting God in the solitude and lengthy Sabbath of carpentry, baptism and wilderness.

The Israelites, who had to learn what it meant to trust in God with nothing more than rock-tainted water and damp manna before becoming a people holy enough to settle into promised land.

The third step is to simply practice Sabbath and make time for it.  Henri Nouwen wrote that we talk and think often about God, but our hearts are far from God (he called this notion the “crisis of our prayer life”).  Eventually, we have to stop reading, talking, doing, and ministering.  We have to put everything down and push everything aside . . .and simply do Sabbath…

“Be still and know that I am God.”

To add words to that verse is to realize that there is nothing more to say, to come upon “a different kind of failure” (T. S. Eliot).

III.

Exercise 1: Sit in silence for 5 minutes.  Introduce time with music for several minutes and keep time thereafter (officially starting your 5 minutes) with an alarm clock (this keeps you from looking at your watch or a clock and lets you rest easy).

Exercise 2:  Write down your weekly schedule for each hour of each day, Sunday through Saturday.  Include routine activities and family/personal obligations.  Do you pencil in Sabbath?  If so, where?

Exercise 3: Consider these questions for reflection:

  • Where do you lack Sabbath in your weekly schedule?
  • How do you practice Sabbath?  When?
  • How does your family play a part in your Sabbath?
  • What decisions and commitments do you need to make in order to reclaim Sabbath?

Resources:

Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 96.

Mark Burrows, “‘Raiding the Inarticulate’: Mysticism, Poetics, and Unlanguageable,” in Minding the Spirit, ed. Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark Burrows (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 341-361.  (All poetry cited in this article is from Burrow’s essay.)

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Ballantine, 1981).

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958).

(Author’s note: This was written for presentation at a pastor’s retreat, going on in mid-April 2013.)

Give it a Rest: Sabbaticals as a Spiritual Discipline

Last week, I was greeted by some raised eyebrows when I announced at church that I was taking a mini-Sabbatical during the month of November.  The idea of a Sabbatical is a bit foreign in Baptist life, so I understand my congregation’s concern; however, taking a Sabbatical is an important part of a minister’s spiritual growth.  It can be a healthy part of a churchgoer’s spiritual growth as well.

The word sabbatical comes from the word, Sabbath, and points back to day seven of creation when God rested.  Sabbath was important enough to make the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day (Ex 20:8).

In ministry as in the academy, taking a Sabbatical means literally to “depart” to pursue short-term goals that bring invigoration.  Many participate in various projects, such as doing research abroad, taking time to write a book or reevaluating a vision for ministry.

The underlying assumption for Sabbatical, whether it applies to a minister, professor, or church member, is that people need to step back for a season and cultivate a new perspective on their calling.

After attending the same church over a long period of time, people tend to draw boundaries around their mission and vision.  At first, an identity that boundaries and ministries provide can be fulfilling, but after a while those boundaries can actually limit the broader vision of what God has for a church’s future.

Our ingrained identities at church can also skew our understanding of God.  For instance, if a pastor is passionate about a certain issue and becomes tied to that issue at the church, then the pastor is tempted to see God as one who also stands for that sole issue.  The pastor’s entire identity in the community comes from that issue rather than the broader gospel ministry for which all ministers stand.  A sabbatical can help the minister expand her horizons.

For church members, a Sabbatical can serve the same function.  Visiting other churches or experiencing different forms of worship can help people discover God anew.  The intention is not to get people to join other churches, but return to church after Sabbatical and testify as to how God has moved in one’s life in a new way.

Many pastors get nervous about encouraging members to go on a Sabbatical because it may mean the loss of a Sunday School teacher, tithe, or a volunteer for a time.  My perspective is that if a member consistently gives of his tithes, talents and gifts after years of faithful service to the church, then a Sabbatical that intentionally seeks to refresh the member will only make his or her giving that much more meaningful upon their return.

When people leave their home church for a season it inspires them to appreciate their church more; as the adage goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  When people return with a new, fresh spirit, this vibrancy can be contagious and help church members utilize gifts that they would otherwise overlook.

Sabbaticals are a necessary part of biblical living.  Attending church without a short-term break can make church routine to the point that the tasks of the church turn stale.  Jesus instructed us that we are to belong to a community of believers and that we should not be overwhelmed by engaging that community the same way year in and year out.  Jesus said that people will know we are Christians by our love, not by what we do at church, let alone by how quickly we burn out.