Some years into my ministry, I attended a retreat on spirituality led by Joan Hickey of the Shalem Institute in Washington. She assigned us as a meditation exercise using the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15) She suggested that we ask Jesus that question in prayer, about ourselves—asking Jesus imaginatively, “who do you say I am?” I took that exercise away with me and used it over and over in the weeks to come. And I began practicing meditative prayer for the first time in my life. I found, and still find, that I never do it “well” (good learning for a perfectionist), but it benefits my life and leadership in ongoing ways. It helps me know who I am and what God calls me to be and do.
We can engage in all kinds of prayer and spiritual practices which can help sustain us. Meditation or contemplative prayer is one of these practices that have the potential to help us grow. Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye…first take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5) In meditation we can pay attention to ourselves.
A Zen story illustrates the spiritual steadiness that can result from years of this kind of practice: “The students in the monastery were in total awe of the elder monk, not because he was strict, but because nothing ever seemed to upset or ruffle him. So they found him a bit unearthly and even frightening. One day they decided to put him to a test. A bunch of them very quietly hid in a dark corner of one of the hallways, and waited for the monk to walk by. Within moments, the old man appeared, carrying a cup of hot tea. Just as he passed by, the students all rushed out at him screaming as loud as they could. But the monk showed no reaction whatsoever. He peacefully made his way to a small table at the end of the hall, gently placed the cup down, and then, leaning against the wall, cried out with shock, “Ohhhhh!”
For most of us, to be able to manage our response in the face of an “ambush” (like the church member who decides to take us on right after a draining sermon) is a distant dream, but we all can get better at it. When we engage in the practice of sitting quietly in meditation over a period of months and years, we learn to deal better with our own anxiety, essential for better leadership. Meditation, when engaged in as a process of growth and not merely a technique, can help us learn to sit with anxiety without reacting or acting. It can help us to learn more fully who we are.