Burning Bushes

THE SUN WAS SHINING, and a stiff breeze blew across the water as I stepped off the ferry and set foot on the historic Isle of Iona. It was my first visit to this holy place where St. Columba established a Christian community in the year 563. Today this beautiful island off the west coast of Scotland continues as a place of pilgrimage. The Iona Community welcomes visitors from around the world for worship and spiritual renewal together with a commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

This pattern was established by George MacLeod, a Presbyterian minister, who brought unemployed craftsmen from his depression-era parish in Glasgow to help rebuild the ruined Abbey buildings. They worked side by side with theological students training for ministry. What they discovered was a blessed integration of worship and work, spiritual life and sharing together in common tasks. It is a pattern that sustains my own life and ministry.

In my work as a pastor – and perhaps in yours as construction worker, scientist, banker or volunteer – the interplay between events and activities that fill my calendar on one hand, and prayer, personal devotion and participation in worship on the other, represent a mutually supportive and enriching pattern. It is a pattern that I believe is rooted in the life of Jesus.

Jesus was an itinerant teacher, healer and worker of miracles. The challenges he faced and the drain on his energy must have been enormous. Yet that life of activity and engagement was always held in balance with prayer. As Jesus embarked on his public ministry, he prayed. When his journey shifted to Jerusalem and the cross, he prayed. On the Mount of Olives before his crucifixion, he prayed. Even as he endured the agony of the cross, Jesus prayed. At every major step in his ministry, Jesus undergirded his actions with prayer. Spirituality and advocacy are inseparable. They work together. One without the other is vacuous, distorted and incomplete.

When we actively confront injustice and seek to bring about transformation in the world without also seeking that inner transformation of our own hearts and inner beings, we risk both running out of energy, and running in the wrong direction. Reflecting on this relationship between contemplation and action, Richard Rohr, a teacher and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation, references 20th century Catholic writer and social activist Thomas Merton, who wrote: “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity,  and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”*

As we grow deeper in our relationship with God, we come to see the world in different ways. We approach others not out of envy, or with a desire to impose our will, but with a servant’s heart. Filled with God’s reconciling love, we seek to participate with God in the healing of creation. Prayer is a necessary component of our action. In one particularly difficult circumstance, Jesus’ disciples asked why they had been unsuccessful in casting out an unclean spirit. Jesus answered, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” (Mk. 9:29) Sometimes, it seems, prayer itself is the action that is required. Authentic spirituality is never self-centered. Our inner life with God always prompts us to move out beyond ourselves to engagement with others and the world God loves.

Richard Rohr points to an example in the life of Moses: “Moses takes spirituality and social engagement together from the very beginning. As Moses hides his face from the burning bush, God commissions him to confront the pharaoh of Egypt and tell him to stop oppressing the enslaved Hebrews.”* Personal transformation and social transformation belong together. Spirituality and advocacy are two sides of the same journey. The pattern I learned on my visit to Iona continues to inform my pilgrimage as a disciple of Jesus and a minister of the gospel.

Paul Matheson is the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Saskatoon and a member of the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada’s Justice and Mercy Group.

*Source: Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Centre for Action and Contemplation by Paul Matheson