In The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things, Leighton Ford describes a time when he was India and he had the opportunity to meet with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Mercy. He then asks her the following question: “‘How do you keep going…with so much poverty and death and pain all around?'” And I love the answer that she gives: “‘We do our work for Jesus and with Jesus and to Jesus…and that’s what keeps it simple. It’s not a matter of praying some times and working others. We pray the work.'” 1
Praying the work. It sounds so simple (and on one level it is), and yet it can only be the product of cultivating spiritual disciplines in one’s life and embarking on the path of transformation. And the result is good fruit as Jesus explains in the Gospel of Luke. In chapter 6, he states,
A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush. A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart (vv. 43-45).
I have often maintained that the purpose of prayer is not so much to get one’s own way, to wrestle God into giving us what we want. Rather, prayer is about transformation. Observe the Psalms and how frequently the psalmist laments their status, crying out to God and seeking His intervention. Yet often by the end of the psalm the psalmist is praising God, although nothing in the psalmist’s circumstances have changed. What has changed is the inward state, the heart and soul, of the psalmist. The psalmist has moved from the false to the True Self.
Our callings can only be lived out in our lives by moving from our false self to our True Self, and we can only live out of our True Self by first understanding our inner selves and motivations. Over time, our outward lives will always reflect or betray our inner dispositions. But we cannot change our inner selves or our false self. Only the work of Another can do that. What we can do is make space and time in our lives to grow our relationship with God.
So, just as I encouraged engaging in the daily examen to determine what one’s motivations are, and practicing centering prayer to root one’s self in God’s love, I recommend a unique form of prayer in this blog post. It is called walking a labyrinth. I had the opportunity to walk a labyrinth earlier this year. For those of you not familiar with the practice, the labyrinth is not a maze. The goal of a maze is to avoid becoming lost or meeting a dead-end. However, you cannot get lost in a labyrinth as there is only one way in that leads to a center. From there, you slowly walk back out of the labyrinth using the same path. But that is the physical description. The labyrinth is also a symbol of the spiritual life.
When I walked a labyrinth earlier this autumn, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I feel or sense anything at all? What if I walk in, pause at the center, and walk back out feeling no different than before I entered? However, I can honestly say that something quite extraordinary happens when one engages the process openly and prayerfully. For one thing, since the labyrinth is usually only marked by paths in the ground and does not have hedges like British mazes, it is all to easy to overlook where one is going and cross boundaries. Therefore, I found that, rather than trying to view the whole journey at once, I had to keep my focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Similarly, the spiritual life is all about following Christ, one step after another in slow, daily, transforming obedience – even when we don’t know the way.
But the Lutheran writer Travis Scholl goes even deeper than I in his reflections on the labyrinth and prayer. He writes this of walking a labyrinth:
When we think of prayer, we think of words, of a conversation. Indeed prayer is this. But the labyrinth, as a discipline of prayer, is an act of prayer. In the labyrinth I pray by taking each next step, one foot in front of the other. The labyrinth makes of prayer an act, and it makes of action a prayer. In it, word and act are united, made one. 2
When I read the above as I was contemplating how to compose this blog I thought to myself, Yes, exactly! Part of my goal in writing this whole blog series is that prayer is part of our calling and living out our calling is prayer. Just as God uses prayer to transform our inward selves, so will we live that transformation in our callings. But we can only reach the prayer that is action by first grappling with the darkness that is in our own hearts. And then, realizing that we cannot change ourselves, we surrender our hearts and our lives to God, and the molding influence of the Holy Spirit, by making space and time for Him. We present ourselves to God through classical spiritual disciplines such as intercessory prayer, Scripture reading, worship, fellowship, serving the community, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. This can also involve some not-so-classical spiritual disciplines such as praying the daily examen, engaging in centering prayer, and going on a silent retreat.
The whole point of the spiritual disciplines is not, as one of my pastors once said, to experience “warm fuzzies”. We engage in the spiritual disciplines, including walking a labyrinth, so that we might learn to lean into God’s calling on our lives and to “pray the work”. This work is not just the work we engage in Monday-Friday (though it does include that), but the work of advancing God’s kingdom here on earth, of learning to say “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” in every aspect of our lives.
Prayer is the very source and life of our callings. Just as Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden, working and tilling the soil to expand the fruitfulness of God’s good creation, so too we must learn to depend on and commune with God in all we do in order for it to bear good fruit. As I mentioned at the beginning, this is not always as difficult as we might think, especially if, through engaging in the spiritual disciplines, we have cutivated the right spiritual virtues in our life. As a result, having a kingdom impact in the world can be as small and as unassuming as learning someone’s name.
For example, when I was volunteering for a Ronald McDonald Room in a local hospital, I always sought to pay attention to those around me, seeking to see Christ in them. One of the individuals I came to know was a janitor. Most people, in their hurriedness and false selves, can’t bring themselves to be bothered with janitors. And yet, knowing that every calling has value to God, I came to know this janitor. Not well, mind you, as it wasn’t long after I started that I received a job offer. Nevertheless, it came to my attention after I was volunteering there that this person had exclaimed regarding me, “He’s so nice. He even remembers my name!” When I heard that, it broke my heart that something so small, and which I really hadn’t even given much thought to, had had such an impact. How many people must go about their business in that hospital, being more concerned about their Starbucks coffee and talking about the facial store Origins (as I once observed two nurses doing), and not taking the time to know the names of the janitorial staff they see each night or each day?
Make no mistake: I am no super-Christian. I am sometimes more interested in drinking my Keurig-made coffee at my desk than I am about a customer wandering the halls. But Scripture makes the claim that we are made in God’s image, His imago Dei. My hope and my prayer is that this little blog series might help some people, including myself, reflect that imago Dei in themselves and live out their True Self in the midst of their callings. And it all starts and ends with prayer.
This was part five of a five-part blog series. To start at the beginning go to The Mineshaft of the Heart.
1 Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008) p. 193.
2 Travis Scholl, Walking the Labyrinth: A Place to Pray and Seek God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014) p. 16. To learn more about the labyrinth I heartily recommend this book as it puts the labyrinth in a Christian perspective. In addition to that, you can also go online to The Labyrinth Society to find labyrinths near you as well as to find additional resources at http://labyrinthsociety.org/. In addition, I hope to write additional posts on the labyrinth and its connection to calling in future posts.