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The Idol of Indispensability: A Thanksgiving Meditation

November 26, 2009

Entrance to Mepkin Abbey

“Chronos:  Our wrist watch and alarm clock time. Kairos:  God’s time, real time.  Jesus took John and James and Peter up the mountain in ordinary, daily chronos; during the glory of the Transfiguration they were dwelling in kairos”   –– Madeline L’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art

I am an activist at heart.  I am restless to see change happen and to be an agent of change.  It is my DNA, my call, and it gives me joy.

But I pursue change differently from 12 years ago.  It is why I ditched email and a busy life for three days last weekend at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina to awkwardly chant psalms starting at 5:30 a.m., make deep bows to the name of the Triune God in a strangely incense-filled sanctuary, share silent meals with hooded monks, and soak in beauty the rest of the day.

It took a crisis in my life to drive me to such places of silence and prayer and strangeness.  I spent 17 years in Mississippi in busy life and work seeking transformation in an urban neighborhood.  And over those years I took one spiritual retreat.  One. Sabbath was not in my vocabulary.  My Bible’s psalmist seemed to say, “Be busy and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

But after the death of a close friend and colleague in 1998 I had no more activism to give.  I was driven to be alone with God – to grieve, to cry out, to demand that God speak, and to strain my ears to listen as I had never listened before.  And what I heard is that I had made an idol of my indispensability.

Over the years since places of stillness with names like The Dwelling Place have become as critical to shaping my vision of life and effectiveness as places of action from Durham to Korea (or the witnesses just at Duke from Uganda and Sudan).  A political science professor friend of mine jokes, “Chris you retreat more than the French army.”

Where the psalms are chanted in the "Liturgy of the Hours" at Mepkin

But it was the voices I sensed 12 years ago from God, and still sense now, which make the silence irresistible.  Not long after I arrive I hear, “I’ve been waiting for you.”  After the 24 hours it takes to “detox” from all the noise that tells me my chief identity is director of this, author of that, activist toward such-and-such, I hear the name that truly matters:  “Beloved son.”  The name the Father gave to Jesus before he did anything spectacular.  Invariably, I go with a flurry of needs on my mind, and leave slowed down to a fullness of wonder and gratitude.  And I am drawn to confess both how people near me every day easily get overlooked in the name of “bigger and better” things to do and how I have become capable of far more than I realized.

Reflecting on a scene from the play Our Town, L’Engle writes:

“In Our Town, after Emily has died in childbirth, Thornton Wilder has her ask the Stage Manager if she can return home to relive just one day.  Reluctantly he allows her to do so.   And she is torn by the beauty of the ordinary, and by our lack of awareness of it.  She cries out to her mother, ‘Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me …. It goes so fast we don’t have time to look at one another.’  And she goes back to the graveyard and the quiet company of the others living there, and she asks the Stage Manager ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?’ And he sighs and says, ‘No.  The saints and poets, maybe.  They do some.’”

To be aware of life while we are living it. Last weekend I realized this is exactly the gift that rhythms of silence offer to us.  Awareness requires stopping to pay attention, to notice, to not overlook what is otherwise unseen.  Kairos, God’s time, real time, writes L’Engle, is “that time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards.”

Silence gives the lens to see what is otherwise unrecognized.  And for me the greatest gift is always this:  to be taken to a place of wondrous recognition to see how God has, indeed, been acting and is, indeed, the only Indispensable One.  And because this is true, I can relax my grip, take myself less seriously, and trust him for the future.

I entered Mepkin Abbey in the turbulence of ordinary, daily chronos, and returned home seeing how Transfiguration has been breaking in over these months.  That is worth going back for.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.

Related Reconcilers posts: Celebrating “Grace Day”: From Trying Harder and Doing More to a Culture of Grace

Also See: Mepkin Abbey web site

Last 5 posts on the Reconcilers Blog:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil Rensen permalink
    November 28, 2009 9:04 am

    hi from Ontario…
    i have greatly enjoyed your writings on this blog. the first article i stumbled across was “Grace Day” and it closely parallelled a journey i went through with a brother 4 years ago who i fell out with massively (both of us committed Christ followers) only to have grace (!!!) totally break into the middle of this, when we had both washed our hands of the relationship “forever”. He is now my son-in-law and has given us a wonderful grand daughter. Funny thing is he’s black, born in Montreal from Jamaican parents, and I’m a white dutch immigrant (not that color was ever a barrier for me)

    So it’s been about 4 years since a bunch of our lives have been transformed by this radical grace… (and we’ve passionate Christ followers for 30 yrs!?)
    5 years ago I might not even have given your blog a second glance just because you are not from the same denominational club as we were.

    I was singing Amazing Grace the other day with a congregation and, as we were singing the second verse (how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed) it occurred to me that for most believers the epitome of grace happened there (the hour I first believed). Yet I’m finding, just like the Father’s love, new depths of grace are overwhelming me now that I never comprehended at the first…

    Thanks again for your writings, (eh?)


  2. Reggie permalink
    November 30, 2009 2:44 pm

    Oh the joys of silence and the bliss of hearing HIS voice! I know what it’s like when you get there and what’s its like when you’re not! Thanks for bringing it to the forefront!

  3. Dan Sidey permalink
    December 20, 2009 6:04 pm

    I was deeply struck by the play’s words (“Our Town”) about how few ever live aware of beauty in the ordinary. I had a time in my life when I was forced to stop. All the doors closed around me. There was only silence. The first few years I ran from this silence, then God’s grace was pressed upon me through the writings of George MacDonald. I saw my selfishness and I stopped running, slowed down and started to listen. I started hearing God in the birds and then the sunsets. Sadly, I never invited that time in to my life. It was pressed upon me. So when it left me I saw it as irretrievable. But you’ve reminded me that I need this kind of thing in my life again and it can return with my help. Thank you.

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