(The following is a message I gave to Rebecca Driscoll, on her ordination to the Christian Ministry at First Baptist Church, Attleboro, Massachusetts on June 24, 2018)
Rebecca, I am honored that you asked me to give the charge to the Ordinand. I’m not sure what a “charge” is, but anyway I’ll give you my thoughts after 42 years of ordained ministry.
I have grown to love the Psalms as a spiritual resource for the life of a minister, so my thoughts are drawn from Psalm 86:11-13, which rang a bell for me recently. When we read scripture it is good to pay special attention to the bells that ring, the “ah-ha” moments.
Teach me your way, O Lord that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. (Psalm 86:11-13)
“Give me an undivided heart” – the psalms are full of great prayers and this is one of them. Attention is a major problem in the spiritual life – the heart is divided in its loyalties. The heart means the self – it is who we are. We need to be whole not divided, and we are whole as we give our attention to God. Most times in the psalms the prayer is for the heart to be whole but here it is for the heart to be “undivided”. I like “undivided” because it encompasses all the other things that I must lay aside in order to direct my attention to God. When someone says, “you have my undivided attention”, you know that they love you.
This does not mean being super religious or super pietistic. It means keeping God at the center, seeing God in all created things and in every human being and every situation. Loving God means loving God in everything and everyone. “Love God, love your neighbor as yourself” – the great commandments.
The psalms teach that prayer is the place to start because God gets us alone, all to God’s self, with undivided heart. It is in prayer that we learn what the undivided heart is. The psalms are a great resource for prayer and meditation and for journal writing, all good spiritual disciplines. In my experience silence is the most important ingredient of prayer and meditation. How can we ever listen to God if we do not first of all keep quiet? The goal of prayer is to bring us into alignment with God’s way, to bring us to an undivided heart. “Thy will not my will be done”, Jesus said.
Most of all we start with prayer because an undivided heart is the gift of God, not something to be achieved by our own effort. Yes, we do our part, but ultimately even the desire for such a heart is gift from God. It comes as God lives through us.
There are two things that bring us to that “undivided heart”. One is the prayer of loving attention. Another is suffering. When I began pastoral ministry over 40 years ago, Henri Nouwen spoke to my heart with his books Wounded Healer and Creative Ministry, with their theme that we minister from our own experience of suffering. I have tried to follow his prescription:
“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how… ministry is the core of the Christian life” (from Creative Ministry by Henri Nouwen).
We tell the stories of the faith filtered through our own experience of suffering and the joy we have gained through it. The good news is incarnated in our own lives. Rebecca, I was impressed as I read your biographical statement in your ordination paper. I said to Jean, “the church needs young ministers like Rebecca. She has a story to tell that speaks about a young person’s search for meaning and God.” Young people need much more than what our entertainment culture offers them. They need interpreters of the Christian Story who can speak their language and share from their heart a deep love of God and neighbor. People will identify with your struggles and sufferings and joys if you have courage to share them. Share with others what you experience of God in the sufferings of life. That’s the call to ministry.
Prayer focuses our attention on God and so do the sufferings we encounter. Dr. Johnson, 18th century man of letters, once said, with that dry sense of humor for which the English are known, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The prospect of suffering really makes us wake up and see the meaning in every moment of every day! When I look back over my experiences it is definitely the times of suffering and trouble when I have given my undivided attention to God. I’ve been reading the Book of Joy and it is the conclusion of both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu that suffering can ennoble or embitter a person. Directing our attention to God can help us find meaning through our suffering and a greater compassion for all who suffer and a deeper joy. “Great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” (Psalm 86:13)
Do not misunderstand me. I am not wishing suffering for anyone – I’d rather we avoid it. And we should certainly work to alleviate it. But one thing I know for sure in life is that suffering will come to all.
Rebecca, as you struggle with these questions in your own life your ministry will always be fruitful. As you seek meaning though prayer and the sufferings of life, you will be led deeper into God. Remember that God is a God of joy and love and grace. That’s why the Psalmist, after praying for an undivided heart, continues:
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me.
Thanks be to God. Amen.