I had a great day away yesterday at St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, CA. It was a treat to arrive in time for 7:30am morning prayer in community. A friend and I spent until midafternoon on the grounds. My heart and mind unwound, and I was able to be more attentive to God’s presence with me. On that theme, I came across this insight from Gerald May’s book Dark Night of the Soul:
“At worst, we give lip service to God’s presence, but then feel and act as if we were completely on our own. I think of church committee meetings, pastoral counseling sessions, or even spiritual direction meetings I have attended. They often begin with a sincere prayer, “God, be with us (as if God might be in attendance at another meeting) and guide our decisions and our actions.” Then at the end comes, “Amen,” and the door crashes shut on God-attentiveness. Now we have said our prayers and it is time to get down to business. The modern educator Parker Palmer calls this “functional atheism. . . the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me .” (Gerald G. May, M.D. Dark Night of the Soul. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, p. 44.)
Ouch. How much functional atheism is there in my life still? Where in my life do I assume that God isn’t interested (or worse, not even welcome)? One of the core values of The Leadership Institute is something we call “The One-Third Rule.” Whenever we have leadership of a meeting, a gathering, a conference, whatever, we design the time so that at least one-third of the time is actual engagement in spiritual disciplines, or practices of community or mission. Not included in this one-third is talking about and teaching about these disciplines or practices. We seek to set aside sufficient space in meetings like May describes so as to be deeply attentive to God throughout the gathering. We want to avoid mere nominal recognition of God as a clearly unimportant initial element that we quickly move beyond.
For example, when we “open a meeting in prayer,” how open are we really if the prayer takes two minutes and the meeting takes two hours? To what degree do we actually expect and trust that God is with us in that meeting? What evidences of the fruit of His Spirit are there in our interactions and our shared life?
“Ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me.” This is Parker Palmer’s definition of functional atheism. Christians who believe in Christ may live, though, as if He were a million miles and a thousand years away. How would my life be different right now, or this week, or in this season, if I more truly believed that, by His Spirit, Christ is making Himself more and more at home in my heart?
Buy a copy of Gerald May’s The Dark Night of the Soul on Amazon.com