Psalm 138:1-8 I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything. On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul. All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth. They shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD. For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me. The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.
Across the kitchen table came tiny sobs from my youngest, “I can’t calm down! I’m just too upset! I can’t…I can’t…I can’t eat my broccoli and I’m just too upset!” While I tried to gain my bearings and process that the sudden outburst was due to my cooking and serving vegetables, my oldest said “it’s ok! Just calm down–just breathe with me!” as she started taking pronounced deep, slow breaths.
“I caaaaan’t” came the loud wail from the small person with fat tears trailing down her cheeks.
I turned to my older daughter and said “You are being so sweet to your sister, but when people are upset they won’t calm down with you unless you match the rhythm of their breath for three breaths before you change tempo.” I showed her what I had been taught to do in crisis hotline training. I made three quick breaths that matched the howling broccoli resister across the table then slowed my breathing down. The broccoli protest grew quieter.
My oldest skeptically turned to me still mulling over what I had said “Well, that’s silly, why can’t people just calm down with you?”
“Well honey,” I said, “People only change if you breathe with them first….where they are at.”
At the heart of prayer is this sentiment.
As leaders, friends and compassionate people we match the breath of the people we lead so that we might be agents of faithful change, but first we must match our breath to the breath of God, engage our holy imagination. For Christian leaders prayer is the first breath. It is the breath of the Spirit in our midst. It is the breath that grounds us in the one that created, redeems and called us. It is the breath that opens up what might be possible, that breathes a word of hope in challenging times and word of hallelujah in moments of celebration. It is also at the heart of many of the Psalms including this weeks from the lectionary.
Prayer is the way in which we invite God to be present in the midst of our most challenging and celebratory moments. Often it is our first opportunity and best lense to explore what faithful leadership in crisis might look like. Before we call the insurance company, begin hard conversations and shift into problem solving mode as community leaders and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ we first seek out the One in whom all our work is centered. As a congregational pastor of a decade I’ve open tense meetings and beautifully holy moments in prayer. I have used prayer to set the tone of hard conversations gently and creatively. I have gone to prayer when the first or last word needs to be a word of the Spirit to settle a room and the hearts weary within.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us in his anthology I Asked for Wonder “we do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting…prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.” When we pray in times of uncertainty we invite God into that uncertainty but we also invite ourselves, our leaders and our community to view the unplanned circumstances with a holy imagination. Engaging the holy imagination requires a set of tools that are different from the practical knowledge of to do lists, management skills or “adulting”, it requires looking on the situation as if God could open up more possibility than we could imagine on our own. When we engage the holy imagination the dichotomy of either/or living gives way to a spectrum of possibilities that reveal the goodness and faithfulness of God in any and all situations. Prayer is an invitation to Spirit guided leadership, to wonder at what is possible and to be brave enough to lead onward.