O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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For all its length and linguistic complexity, this is a remarkably modest prayer. This prayer, tucked away as the second (not even the first) “prayer for guidance” in the BCP’s back-end collection of miscellany, asks for just one thing: grace, not even to know God’s will, but simply to keep asking to know. Apparently it is a hard enough thing just to remember to ask, that we require God’s help to do it.
A fitting prayer for, say, a recent divinity school grad, trying to decide where to go and what to do next (or mostly waiting on others to decide where I will go and what I will do). But also fitting, in this time, for all of us in the church, as even the most basic things about our life together have suddenly become questions. Should we meet? Can we sing? Is it bread, bread and wine, or neither? Well, God, what would you have us do? It seems exhausting to keep questioning everything like this. We surely need grace to keep doing it.
This one prayer has been a close companion over the past two months, first as I waited to hear whether I got this job, and more recently as I’ve waited for the job itself to actually begin. I’m sure it will be a prayer I return to often over the next three years. As the name Reimagining Curacies indicates, this is a project that will try out some new answers to some old questions about how ministry is done, and how fledgling ministers like me are fledged. Obviously some things have already been, well, reimagined for us—most notably the notion of a “home church,” which for us will rotate every year in a dizzying game of ministry musical chairs. This rapid succession of profound, and literally unsettling, change will press us to keep asking that most basic ministerial question: Lord, what would you have us do?
I see already how one needs grace merely to ask. I see that the particular temptation of the seminary student—that burning desire to be recognized as One Who Knows—is no stranger to the seminary graduate and the new pastor either. I would like to think, and would love to prove, that I already know what to do. (After all, I arrive on the scene as both recruit and representative of this heralded new program.) I need God’s grace to admit that I don’t.
The “grace to ask” also extends, I think, to the grace to listen for God’s answer. That will be very, very hard over these next three years. Twelve months is an impossibly short time in which to join, get to know, serve and pastor, and somehow graciously leave a single community. How does one learn to wait on God when there’s no time to waste? When I first spoke with the bishop about this program, he said that one of the central pastoral skills that it would both demand and develop was the ability to read systems and situations quickly. That has become one of its strongest attractions for me, while remaining perhaps its most terrifying aspect. The Spirit arrives right on time—but one would hardly say the Spirit always moves quickly. Learning to move quickly but also to move in God’s time—learning to find “the still point of the turning world,” as T.S. Eliot says—is one of those pastoral arts that serves any time well, but seems especially vital as the church tries to find its balance in a world that turns faster and faster.
My wife reminded me a few weeks ago that it’s best to begin as one means to continue. I have tried to begin by asking, in the very first place, for the grace just to keep asking. I’m grateful that the straight path, as far as I could see it, has led me here to these three communities, and I mean to continue asking in the midst of them what God would have us do together in the whatever time we have.