How can a spiritual leader keep his or her faith vital?

How can a spiritual leader keep his or her faith vital?

Nouwen: I'm like many pastors; I commit myself to projects and plans and then wonder how I can get them all done. This is true of the pastor, the teacher, the administrator. Indeed, it's true of our culture, which tells us, "Do as much as you can or you'll never make it." In that sense, pastors are part of the world. I've discovered I cannot fight the demons of busyness directly. I cannot continuously say no to this or no to that, unless there is something ten times more attractive to choose. Saying no to my lust, my greed, my needs, and the world's powers takes an enormous amount of energy.

The only hope is to find something so obviously real and attractive that I can devote all my energies to saying yes. One such thing I can say yes to is when I come in touch with the fact that I am loved. Once I have found that in my total brokenness I am still loved, I become free from the compulsion of doing successful things.

Foster: Let me tie into that with an experience from the first church I pastored. I had finished my doctorate and I was supposed to be an expert. I went to a tiny church in Southern California that would rank as a marginal failure on the ecclesiastical scoreboards. I went in there and worked and planned and organized, determined to turn this church around. But things got worse. Anger seemed to permeate everyone: the conservatives were mad at the liberals, the liberals were mad at the radicals, and the radicals were mad at everyone else. I hated to go to pastors' conferences because I didn't have any success stories to tell. I was working myself to death, but it seemed to do no good. Then I spent three days with my spiritual director. Toward the end of that time he said, "Dick, you have to decide whether you are going to be a minister of this church or a minister of Christ." That was a turning point. Until then I had allowed other people's—and my own—expectations to manipulate me.

How important is prayer? What is prayer?

Nouwen: Prayer is first of all listening to God. It's openness. God is always speaking; he's always doing something. Prayer is to enter into that activity. Take this room. Imagine you've never been out of it. Prayer is like going outside to see what's really there. Prayer in its most basic sense is just entering into an attitude of saying, "Lord, what are you saying to me?"

Foster: The problem with describing prayer as speaking to God is that it implies we are still in control. But in listening, we let go. Real intercession is what comes out of listening. People are tired of hearing about "ten steps that will change your life." That isn't where it's at, because then people tend to focus on the steps instead of hearing and obeying God.

The spiritual life is not something we add onto an already busy life. What we are talking about is to impregnate and infiltrate and control what we already do with an attitude of service to God. For pastors, this might mean silent prayer in their board meetings. One of the greatest revelations to me was to experiment with being in communion with God in board meetings. I learned I didn't always have to speak and control, and that I could pray for people in the room who had a heaviness with life. It's like living on two levels. On one you are doing the activities of the day, but on a deeper, more profound level, there is this inward prayer and worship.

What can we do to help us center our thoughts on God?

Foster: Many different things. My boys and I have built a basketball standard out by our driveway. I go out alone at ten at night and shoot baskets. It's a time to pray. And as I shoot baskets, I invite God to remind me of my day. Are there things that need to be confessed: Was I curt to my secretary? Do I need to set something straight? Am I disturbing my neighbors?

In the morning I've been having fun experimenting with prayer during that period of just starting to wake up. You aren't fully conscious, but you aren't fully asleep; during that in-between period I try to surrender my day to God.

Nouwen: People who live a spiritual life become sensitive to their surroundings. Notice their houses; they are uncluttered. Your physical place becomes more spacious when your life is lived spiritually. The idea of going on retreat for prayer is crucial, but we also need to pray daily. It's not only important to set aside time to pray, but also a place to pray. I have a special place to pray, and I spend a predetermined amount of time in this space. The only reason to be there is to pray. After the time is up I can say, "Lord, this was my prayer, even if my mind was full of confusion."

Foster: There are many practical ways to increase the spiritual atmosphere of the home. In our home we don't answer the telephone when we are eating or if I'm reading stories to the children, because I want my boys to know they are more important than the telephone.

Nouwen: The obvious assumption of always answering the phone is that the person on the phone has something more important to say than what you are saying, which is not true. The same applies to the television. My mother always said, "I don't understand why you tolerate this stranger talking in the middle of my room. We didn't invite him. Turn him off."

Foster: I have another suggestion for discipline that I have found very helpful. Tell people not only when a meeting starts, but when it ends. I don't mean only business meetings, but social meetings too. I always invite students from eight to ten in the evening. At ten I say, "Let's close with prayer."

Nouwen: A word here on the form of prayer. Prayer involves the body. It can be done in many different postures. You can stand, kneel, lie flat, hold hands, lie in bed, or sit in a chair.

Foster: You do what is appropriate for the type of prayer you are praying. A friend who is now a philosophy professor has prayed with me a great deal. I remember one time we met together to pray for some people in our congregation who had serious problems. As we began, my friend, who is over six feet tall, flattened himself straight out on the floor. I had planned to just kneel, but I realized his posture was appropriate for the kind of concern we had.

Nouwen: What is also important about different postures is that sometimes your mind is too tired to concentrate in the right way, and your body position can get you in the proper frame of mind.

What about the content of prayer?

Nouwen: Too many Christians think prayer means to have spiritual thoughts. That's not it. Prayer means to bring into the presence of God all that you are. You can say, "God, I hate this guy; I can't stand him." The prayer life of most people is too selective. They usually present only those things to God they want him to know or they think he can handle. But God can handle everything.

Foster: You've heard people say, "I don't know what to pray about." Or, they will get a prayer list and pray for missionaries because they don't know what else to do. A lady said to me not too long ago, "I can't pray for more than two minutes at a time. What can I do?" When people say that to me, I reply, "What have you been thinking or worrying about this last week? Pray about that."

Nouwen: Convert your thoughts into prayer. As we are involved in unceasing thinking, so we are called to unceasing prayer. The difference is not that prayer is thinking about other things, but that prayer is thinking in dialogue. It is a move from self-centered monologue to a conversation with God.

Adapted from "The Spiritual Leader's Vitality," by Richard Foster and Henri Nouwen, Christianity Today Library. Click here to read the original article in its entirety and for reprint information.

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