What Do They Need?
By Rev. Alicia Randolph Rapking
There is a story that comes to us from Theophan the Monk, from the book Tales of the Magic Monastery. It goes something like this:
There’s a monk, at the Magic Monastery, who will never give you advice, but only a question. I was told his questions could be very helpful. I sought him out. “I am a parish priest,” I said. “I’m here on retreat. Could you give me a question?”
“Ah, yes,” he answered. “My question is, ‘What do they need?’”
I came away disappointed. I spent a few hours with the question, writing out answers, but finally I went back to him.
“Excuse me. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my congregation during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”
“Ah, I see. Then my question is, ‘What do they really need?’” What do they need?
This summer has been a rather difficult summer. History will remember this summer as a summer with a very difficult and nasty political campaign that has both divided and united people. History will remember this summer with stories of many, many attacks, here in our own country and throughout the world in places that I have never been and in places that are near and dear to my heart. History will remember this summer as the summer of the Olympic Games in Rio in the midst of zika virus, and other fears. History will remember this summer as a difficult summer of storms, of heat, of poverty, of fighting and infighting in public, in private, in church. And, of course, history will remember this summer, for us here in WV, for the devastation of floodwaters that have left whole communities in grief and despair and searching for hope and relief.
For a pastor and indeed really for all people of faith, the Magic Monastery Monk’s question is constant on our hearts and minds: What do they need?
What do they need from us? Surely there is something that I can do that can really change things for people all around me, we ask. Do they need another sermon reminding them of the Cost of Discipleship? Maybe. Do they need a sermon series based on a current issue with a Bible Study to go with it? Maybe. Do they need a trip every week to do something good? Maybe. Do they need to cook meals every week? Maybe. Do they need a large-scale visitation to every resident in the town? Maybe. Do they need more retreats? Maybe.
An easier question for us to answer is this one: What do they not need? A worn out pastor. A worn out leader. A worn out friend or family member. A worn out person of faith.
And this is where my sighing begins. I sigh because I know there are times that I am worn out. I feel it in my bones and in my heart, and yet I still want to offer something that will help others know that they are loved and cherished by God.
Thomas Merton said:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God.
What they really need from us, what the church needs, what the world needs, what we need from us and what God desires for us is that we discover this point of nothingness at the center of our being—nothingness because it is untouched by sin and by illusion, nothingness because it is a point of pure truth, nothingness so that this point, this center, this spark of who we are at the core can belong entirely to God.
For a moment, think about who you belong to: I belong to …
my family, especially my children
my two older brothers
the Parish House
the WV Annual Conference
over 50 United Methodist Churches in the Upshur Cooperative Parish
all of our neighbor families through Crosslines
countless others that would take me a long time to name
There are so many people and obligations that we belong to.
Yet, on rare days, I understand Merton’s statement that, at the core of my being, there is a part of me that belongs solely and completely to God and that part of me is pure, untouched by sin and illusion, and contains a spark of that abundant, astonishing, unconditional love that is God.
On rare days I can believe this beyond a shadow of a doubt. But, most days, I find myself dodging shadows. On these days I think I know that part of me that belongs completely to God, that desires so deeply to be in that place all the time, but the shadows of doubt cause me to question whether that place is real. The shadows of doubt cause me to question whether it is possible for any part of me to belong completely to God. The shadows of doubt cause me to wonder why God would want any part of me to belong completely to God.
And then, somehow, the words “mercy” and “trust” rise in my soul as if God is saying to me: “Alicia, feel my mercy, trust my love. You belong to me.”
And then, somehow, I hear the words that a great poet of long ago penned—words that must have come from that part where he recognized that he belonged to God, words that compose my favorite psalm:
Lord, you have examined me
You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
That you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
It’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it. . .
You are the one who created my innermost parts;
You knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
When I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance
And on your scroll every day was written what was being formed for me,
Before any one of them had yet happened.
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.
–from Psalm 139
I can imagine that, for one rare moment, the poet caught a glimpse of that part of himself that belonged completely to God. I can imagine that it was a powerful, life-changing moment, not only for the poet, but for everyone around the poet. Indeed, it was a life-changing moment for everyone who has read the words of Psalm 139 across the ages and recognized that in these words is a love poem to our God, who loves us abundantly, astonishingly, and unconditionally.
I can imagine that for the poet, that for the rest of his life he searched and longed for more and more of those rare moments when he got what Merton was talking about and recognized that there is within all of us that part where we belong completely to God.
What do they need? They need for us to seek and find and rest in that part of ourselves that belongs completely to God. It is in that place that we understand the Gospel. It is from that part of us that we know what it means to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. It is from that part of us that we recognize that sometimes it is better for us to sit with someone in silence than to go about fixing things. It is from that part of us that we see creation and the world the way God sees us all. It is from that place that the power of Christ’s death and resurrection become real for us. It is from that part of us that the Holy Spirit is our constant companion and where we feel the gentle nudges, the powerful breath of life, the silent words of love, of encouragement, of hope.
What do they need? They need us to find that part of ourselves that belongs completely to God, to believe that this part of us exists so that we can help them know that there is a part of them, of each person in our congregations, in our places of ministry, in our places of work, in our families and friends, in the places we go—that there is a part of them that belongs completely to God, where no sin or illusion has touched because it is encompassed with God’s abundant, astonishing, unconditional love for each of them.
How do we get there? It requires slowing down, giving to God our shadows of doubt, breathing, silence, patience, and a desire to live at the deepest level, the core of our being where we belong completely to God.
It will be different for each of us, but I suspect that it will be simpler than we imagine.
My friend, K Almond, retired pastor of the WV Annual Conference, tells the story of one the parishioners in her first appointment who understood that there was a part of her that belonged completely to God.
The woman led a very busy life with her family and home and many, many activities within the church and community. She gave of herself constantly. One day she asked K, her pastor, if she wanted to know what kept her going. Of course, K wanted to know.
“Each afternoon, I go to the kitchen and make myself a cup of my favorite peppermint tea. I go to my chair by the window where I can watch the birds at the bird feeder and look at the flowers in my garden, and I simply let God love me.”
This woman understood that there is a part of her that belonged completely to God and she cherished that part of herself and knew that staying in touch with that part of herself would give her the stamina and energy she needed to bring God’s love to so many.
My prayer for all of us is that we seek each day to answer that question: What do they need? And that we try to answer it by sinking deeper into that part of us that belongs completely to God, and that our living and working and loving be out of that part of us where we find the abundant, astonishing, unconditional love of God.
To God alone be glory!