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Leadership in a shifting culture.
Winter 1997


Interview: Deepening Our Conversation with God (part 2)

Continued from previous page

But sometimes we feel insecure about all there is to do. How does a pastor unlearn running out to do the urgent?

Foster: I was told in seminary that if I preached from the Old Testament, I should study the Hebrew text. If I preached from the New Testament, I should study the Greek text. I was told to spend time each week working on my sermon delivery. Pastoral counseling, they told me, is crucial to my ministry.

I added up the time it takes to do all these things; the total was staggering. Once in the ministry, I found out quickly that those things might build churches, but they don't necessarily help people. I had to go back to square one and ask, "What am I to do?"
The answer that came was "Love God and walk with him." Once the pastor is settled and centered on that, the guilt feelings are gone.
Nouwen: It may well be that many pastors are insecure people, but that can be an asset as well as a liability. Insecure people need social contact. Many people with that kind of personality might choose the ministry because that is a way of dealing with their need. I don't think that's bad.

One of the most beautiful ways for spiritual formation to take place is to let your insecurity lead you closer to the Lord. Natural hypersensitivity can become an asset; it makes you aware of your need to be with people and it allows you to be more willing to look at their needs. In a sense, you let your psychological trembling become trembling for the Lord; and you use the insecurity of human relationships to develop a firm relationship with God.
Foster: The disciples are some of the best examples of that.

Nouwen: Your insecurity may be neurotic, but it may also lead to a very deep spiritual life. Instead of telling clergy, "You're insecure; that's why you became pastors," we should tell them, "Your insecurity is a vocation; it's an invitation to really live the spiritual life."

How can ministers accept their insecurity that way?

Nouwen: You need a person with whom you feel free to be insecure. Let me paint a picture. You're in a big room with a six-inch-wide balance beam in the center. Now the balance beam is only twelve inches off the fully carpeted floor. Most of us act as if we were blindfolded and trying to walk on that balance beam; we're afraid we'll fall off. But we don't realize we're only twelve inches off the floor.

The spiritual director is someone who can push you off that balance beam and say, "See? It's okay. God still loves you." Take that nervousness about whether you're going to succeed and whether you have enough money-take the whole thing up on that narrow beam and just fall off.
Foster: That's one of the great values of reading the saints. They had this utter vulnerability to fail by human standards.

We've talked a lot about prayer. How do you look at 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. People are tired of hearing about "Ten Steps that Will Change Your Life."

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.
I also think it's very important what we think about in the evening before we go to sleep, and in the morning as we wake up. So many of us allow the late news to dictate what we think about when we go to bed.

What's involved in centering your thoughts on God?

Foster: My boys and I built a basketball standard by our driveway. I go out alone at ten at night and shoot baskets. It's a time to pray. 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?

In the morning I've been 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 a 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 where I spend a predetermined amount of time. 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: To increase the spiritual atmosphere of 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 to talk in the middle of my room. We didn't invite him. Turn him off."

Foster: Another suggestion for discipline is to 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: 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. 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 think he can handle. But God can handle everything.

Foster: Not long ago, a lady said to me, "I can't pray for more than two minutes at a time. What can I do?"
When people say that, 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.

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