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When Persistence isn’t What is Needed

March 8, 2012

If there is anything I am, it is stubborn.  If I wanted to do something and set my mind to it, then I was going to do it.  Because of the negative connotations with the word stubborn, I prefer to think of the trait as persistence.  Sometimes this trait has served me well.  In junior high school I decided I wanted to do hurdles.  I spent afternoons at a high school (not my own junior high school either since our junior high school used a gravel track) practicing.  Over and over I would do my trail leg drills.  The hurdle was propped up close enough to a fence that my I could hold onto the fence, leaning, and bring my trail leg over the hurdle.  Flat and tight, I told myself as I spent beautiful Sunday afternoons doing drills.  In college, when my times weren’t improving, I was back on the track doing drills.  I didn’t matter if the track was covered with snow. I put on my spikes so my feet wouldn’t slip, bundled up, and got to work.  The work paid off, not immediately but over time, by stubborn nature made me into a decent hurdler.

At other times, the trait has hindered me.  My mom can tell countless stories of times I was too stubborn to listen and thus made myself a lot more work.  Potty training is one of the favorite examples that has come up every time I potty train another of my children.  My husband shakes his head when asked about my stubborness.  I am a mule at a times.

Naturally, this trait has also been seen in my spiritual life.  If I can just work hard enough, I can have a deeper relationship with God.  The book I am reading for Lent, The Breath of the Soul by Joan Chittister, has a meditation, Bible passage, and then prayer/mantra for the day.  As I went on my long bike ride on Friday, I focused on the prayer for the day over and over.  I went through last week, praying constantly my prayers for the day.  I was going to pray without ceasing if it was the last thing I did.

Yesterday, that same book that was giving me my prayers convicted and reminded me of my stubborn nature.  The Bible passage was I Kings 19:11- 13, in which Elijah was listening for the voice of God.  The wind came, the fire came, the earthquake came, and God was not in either of those.  Finally, a gentle whisper and that was where Elijah found God.  The prayer that followed was this:

Give me the grace to be quiet, to listen for your voice in my heart.

Oops.  All that work, wasn’t really what God was asking for.  Here I was, as busy as I could be repeating my prayer.  I worked so hard to clear my mind and replace it with a prayer.  I felt exhausted from saying the same prayer over and over.  It was mentally like practicing hurdles with my hands on the fence, pulling my trail leg over and over.  I was going to get.  I found myself wanting a break from praying because it took so much work to “pray without ceasing.”

I totally missed the point of grace.  Grace is being quiet, and listening for God’s voice.  Grace means that when I everything I doesn’t doesn’t get me to God, Jesus bridges the gap for me.  I can’t do it, no matter how hard I try.  In fact, the harder I try, the farther I take myself from God, even when I am trying to attain “praying without ceasing.”

I came back to another quote from Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening that was the focal point of a contemplative service I went to a year ago:

In life, as in water, when we curl up or flail, we sink.

When we spread and go still, we are carried by the largest sea of all:  the sea of Grace that flows steadily beneath the turmoil of events.

And just as fish can’t see the ocean they live in, we can’t quite see the Spirit that sustains us.

While I am going to continue to pray my mantra throughout the day, I will do it without the determination I attacked it with before.  I will leave room for God’s Spirit to sustain me and for me to hear God’s voice in my heart.

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