A passage from the Talmud proclaims that over every blade of grass, there is an angel whispering, “Grow, grow.” This saying describes my understanding of practicing the presence of God in ministry. Practicing the presence of God is about mindfulness and self-awareness. It’s about seeing the holy in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary events in life. It’s about promoting the growth of God’s work in peoples’ lives. If God is truly omnipresent—and that means present everywhere and in every encounter—then each moment provides an opportunity to receive and give God’s blessing, counsel, and wisdom. Each moment invites us not only to experience divine inspiration but share to God’s wisdom with others.
One of my spiritual teachers, Gerald May, described this process of awakening to God’s presence through five steps: pausing, noticing, opening, yielding and stretching, and responding. In the spirit of Brother Lawrence, who saw every encounter as an opportunity to experience God’s blessings and praise our Creator, this process of awakening can be utilized both as a momentary call to awareness or as a regular practice of self-examination. As May notes, “authentic spiritual practice is nothing other than consecration in action. It is feeling your greatest desire, claiming it as a freshly born hope, offering it to God, and consciously living it as fully as you can.”1
These days, I am learning much of my theology alongside my grandson, who just turned one. Together, we practice May’s spiritual methodology, usually on our knees. We pause to notice what’s right in front of us in this precious and holy moment. Julian of Norwich once said that something as simple as a hazelnut exists because of God’s lively presence within it. This is surely the case for fireflies, bits of paper on the floor, or church board members!
We notice, that is, we really look at things. Nothing is fully as it seems; everything points beyond itself to the deeper dimensions of life. As William Blake says, you can find a universe in a grain of sand. For toddlers and mystics, every moment points to the divine. There is a burning bush around every corner, whether that corner leads to a cluttered pastor’s study, a restroom in need of cleaning, or a congregant in the hospital. Part of this process involves noticing ourselves and our own spiritual journeys: What’s going here? How am I feeling—physically, emotionally, and spiritually? Where is God in this moment? Am I living out my calling in creative and life-supporting ways?
My grandson and I open to the moment without defensiveness, bathing ourselves in the wonder of life and the wisdom of God. Jesus counseled that the realm of God was found by becoming like a child. While we adults have, for better or worse, sophisticated ways of self-awareness, the child is always aware of the deepest desire of her or his heart. There is no gap between her or his experience and the sighs too deep for words. It may come out as a cry, an outstretched arm, or racing to a parent for comfort, but children know what they most deeply need. In opening, we let the ever-present lure of God bubble up to guide our steps and words, whether we are preparing for a sermon or attending a church board meeting.
Moment by moment my grandson and I yield and stretch by choosing to follow God’s wisdom whether embedded in the DNA, the natural processes of growth, or insights, dreams, and hunches. Just think of the growth of an infant: how he or she moves forward in life, initially lured ahead by a vision she or he can’t articulate that inspires latching on to mother’s breast, opening her eyes, rolling over, crawling, babbling, and walking. As adults, we often become oblivious to the inner voices and visions. But, they still speak to us, and we learn to listen when we pause and open, and notice through prayer, meditation, and simple awareness the holiness of ourselves and the world.
Finally, as I crawl and now walk slowly with my grandson, I am discovering that life is a constant call and response. God is constantly calling—knocking at the door of our hearts and minds, speaking through our cells, moving through encounters, surprising us with insights. God is inviting us to respond in our own unique way. The details of life are not decided in advance, but emerge in the dynamic divine-human call and response.
Practicing the presence of God in ministry is not an esoteric act. It is a simple everyday opening to the holiness of this moment and our experience. Brick, mortar, and budget spread sheets can call us to God. A little child in the nursery can reveal the beauty of that first Christmas. Counseling and spiritual direction remind us that we are on holy ground. Preaching can transform our lives week by week, and bring new insights to our congregations. In all the activities of ministry, we can wake up—like Jacob—and proclaim, “God was in this place.” We can discover a blessing hidden in every pastoral encounter and become a medium of God’s blessing wherever we go.
Bruce G. Epperly will be teaching an online LEARN seminar through Andover Newton Theological School in partnership with The Alban Institute. The course is entitled “Tending to the Holy: Practicing the Presence of God in Ministry,” and will be offered October 3–28, 2011. Registration closes September 23, so reserve your spot today!
For more information or to sign up, visit www.ants.edu .
1. Gerald May, The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991), 111.
What’s on Your Learning Agenda?
By Twila Glenn, Alban Director of Consulting and Learning
Here at Alban we are planning our schedule of education and skill-building opportunities for 2012, and we need your help to finalize the list.
This survey is your opportunity to give us feedback on the line-up that we have in mind for 2012. Comment, make suggestions, tell us if we are on-target or way off base.
Indicating an interest in an event places no obligation on you. But it will help us help you pursue your own learning agenda in 2012.
Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry.
Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership
by Bruce G. Epperly
For more than thirty years, Bruce Epperly has followed the call of the spirit, moving through his vocations as a congregational pastor, university chaplain, seminary and university professor, and seminary administrator. Drawing on these experiences, he addresses the new pastor’s transition from seminary student to congregational leader…
The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles
by Timothy C. Geoffrion
Designed for pastors, executives, administrators, managers, coordinators, and all who see themselves as leaders and who want to fulfill their God-given purpose, The Spirit-Led Leader addresses the critical fusion of spiritual life and leadership for those who not only want to see results but also desire to care just as deeply about who they are and how they lead as they do about what they produce and accomplish.
A Lifelong Call to Learn: Continuing Education for Religious Leaders
by Robert E. Reber and D. Bruce Roberts
A Lifelong Call to Learn is aimed at directors of lifelong learning and continuing education that serve both clergy and laity in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish seminaries and conference and retreat centers. While proposing new approaches in continuing theological education, it also addresses the need for programs that involve both clergy and laity at the congregational level and that support ongoing interreligious dialogue in our increasingly pluralistic society.
Check out these October Learning Opportunities!
Oct. 11-13, 2011: “Living Traditionally in a New Age,” led by Landon Whitsitt, Ashville, NC
Oct. 18-20, 2011: “New Vision for the Long Pastorate,” led by Ed White, Richmond, VA
Oct. 25-27, 2011: “Inside the Large Congregation,” led by Susan Beaumont, Atlanta, GA
Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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