(The following is excerpted from Quiet: Hearing God Amidst the Noise.)
It was winter of 2007 when I moved from pastoring a large community in Central Florida to parachuting a church plant in Southern California. Everything about church planting one needs to know, but soon forgets, lies in the term itself: church planting. The vocation requires the patience of a farmer rather than the efficiency of a machinist. But self-imposed deadlines, fundraising, and chronic comparison often derail church “planters” into church “mechanics.” Several months into the project, I needed a breakthrough. Only I was unaware of what form my breakthrough would take. What was clear, however, was that planting depended on prayer, and my prayer life was anemic at best.
Pertinently, around that time a friend was hosting a workshop centered on the life and ministry of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen had left his teaching position at Yale to serve and learn from the mentally handicapped in a community called Daybreak. Prior to his departure from academia, his life had been riddled by the same cycle I had found myself in as a planter:
I met a man that morning while attending this workshop. Over lunch we discussed the ever-growing pressures of life, and the desire to connect with God more deeply in prayer. It is often difficult to reconcile the depth of our ancestors faith with the superficiality characterized by much of Western Christianity today. The more we talked, the more I realized this man had developed the disciplines necessary to move beyond talking at God and was growing into being with God. This was the necessary breakthrough I was waiting for. By the end of lunch I was able to articulate what had previously been only an unnamed impression. Not only did I want this kind of relationship with God, but it was in line with the same longings of the early church, the Desert Fathers, the monastic communities and many other traditions along the way.
It occurred to me that maybe it was time to break free from the cyclical prayers I had become accustomed to launching at God—that maybe there was a better conversation happening within me that I needed to join. This is where the Spirit’s “groanings” in Romans 8:26-27 came into play. Marjorie J. Thompson says it well:
Have you considered what an astonishing promise it is that the Spirit prays in us, and does so ‘according to the will of God’? Perhaps our real task in prayer is to attune ourselves to the conversation already going on deep in our hearts. Then we may align our conscious intentions with the desire of God being expressed at our core.
In Romans 8, Paul rightly confesses that we do, in fact, have weaknesses. Further, the Spirit within every disciple longs to help where we are weak. The problem is that competency, comparison and control are each habitual and subversive strategies to strive in our own capacities as ministers of the Gospel. We equate strength with feeling equipped and competent in our abilities. We believe the illusion that comparing ourselves to others can lead to personal victory. We swallow whole the lie that if we can only control our lives through worry, manipulation and working harder then we will get what we want. Perhaps these are the very weaknesses from which the Spirit seeks to liberate us.
I believe, in this text, Paul is implying we are so caught up in our inner dramas that we lack the clarity to know what to pray for. That is how lost we are in our heads. How are we to lead spiritual communities if that is our reality? To find our way back requires us to pursue the inverse of our impulses:
Surrendering to the Holy Spirit, who indwells, connects us to the eternal dialogue within the Trinity – which is a better conversation that the one in our heads. Entering this conversation reminds us of what is real. And the truth is, we are less important than we think, yet more loved than we know. The loss of this “significance” is actually a grace because our self-worth no longer has to be defended through competition, comparison and control. What a liberation!
So may you learn to enter the eternal conversation—the joy, and the mystery of what the Holy Spirit is constantly speaking with the Father and the Son. Furthermore, the conversation within the Trinity is full of sacrifice, acceptance and creative love toward the other. Is this not the conversation we prefer to be brought into rather than the inner chatter of critique and ego? Is this not the beginning and end of what it means to be a disciple? Is this not the substance of where the church planter derives Kingdom authority and power?
AJ Sherrill serves as the Pastor at Trinity Grace Church in Chelsea, a neighborhood in Manhattan. He is author of the contemplative work Quiet: Hearing God Amidst the Noise (2014), and a spiritual formation resource, Urban Disciple: Following Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew (2013). He is currently pursuing his Doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary.