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Meetings matter! spirituality and skills for meetings

30 August, 2010

This book grew out of an MA course in Applied Spirituality directed by the authors (P. Brady and B. Grogan) in the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin.

136 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book on line go to www.veritas.ie

CONTENTS

Introduction

  1. The Challenge to Engage
  2. Mentoring and Meetings
  3. Let the Real God Speak
  4. God’s Agenda is to Build Community
  5. God-Talk: The Art of Spiritual Conversation
  6. Recognising the Spirit
  7. Keeping God in View: The Role of Prayer
  8. Forming a Cohesive Group
  9. Group Dynamics and Individual Styles
  10. The Dynamics of Social Decision-Making
  11. Social Decision-Making: A Case Study
  12. Conflict Resolution
  13. Care of the Group and Pastoral Supervision

Appendix I: Self-Evaluation Regarding Group Skills 
Appendix II: The Group Meeting as a Contemplative Experience 
Appendix III: Body Language 
Bibliography 
Further Reading 
Commendations from Milltown Class of 2008

INTRODUCTION

The goal of Christianity is clear: love of God and neighbour. Our focus is on the command to love our neighbour as ourselves, and within that vast and unending agenda, our concern is with groups and meetings, since the decisions made there shape the lives of others for good or ill. According to a recent statistic, eighty-five million meetings occur every day. Whether this figure is accurate or not, it is clear that meetings are highly important; they shape our world. Hence the relevance of this book, which grew out of an MA course in Applied Spirituality directed by us for the past eight years in the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin.

Our focus is on the often ignored faith dimension of meetings. When viewed through the light of faith, the elements of an ordinary meeting are transformed. Our thesis is that God is involved with groups and uses our help there to achieve the common good. We are, in fact, presenting a spirituality of meetings.

We argue that the Spirit works in every group and that as Christian participants at meetings, we must go beyond passivity and place ourselves at the service of the Spirit. By being a listening post for the Spirit, we support the Spirit’s work and act as the Spirit’s human voice.

Adults bring a wealth of gifts and experience to their study. Often they already know in some way what they are learning. The dynamics of adult learning are used in this book. You, the reader, may be the veteran of many meetings and so are invited throughout to relate what is proposed here to your experience, and so to make your meetings more constructive. If you are the leader, the facilitator or the chairperson, you have a certain delegated power to influence the group, but even if you hold no specific role, you are not powerless. As we shall see, you can play an influential role as an ‘enabler’ or ‘mentor’, for you are not alone but acting for the Spirit.

It is certainly hard to both participate in a group and also watch out for its dynamics. We come to meetings with our own values and agendas, and it is an art – but one which can be learned, as our students tell us – to be able to stand back from our personal involvement to see what is going on in the group. Ideally, every group should have a facilitator whose concern is totally with the process, but this will not be the case in most meetings. Therefore, you have to play something of the facilitator’s role and make this a priority over your own personal concerns.

Often you may feel alone and powerless in your concern for the divine agenda. In fact, however, someone greater is also there, even if incognito, and is working with power. But God does not like to work alone. God prefers a divine and human partnership to bring about the lasting good of humankind. The task of the mentor links in with the Hebrew prophetic tradition, where the Spirit constantly intervenes through the prophet: ‘Go and tell them this …’ Individuals are singled out to be spokespersons of God: ‘Speak in my name!’

Within Ireland alone, we can list many lay people who responded to the call of the Spirit. Think of Nano Nagle, Edmund Rice, Teresa Ball, Mary Aikenhead, Catherine McAuley, Margaret Aylward – each of these has left an enduring mark through the congregations they established.

Bono, Bob Geldof, Ali Hewson, Niall Mellon, John O’Shea, Adi Roche and many others carry the torch in our day and in turn inspire others with their dreams and energy. The Spirit nudges us also to engage with God in a less dramatic but still important fashion.

In the cut and thrust of lively and intense meetings, the use of the skills set out here presents a considerable challenge – this explains the strong emphasis on the theory and the theology of engagement. While you can learn a set of group skills quite quickly, without the vision set out here you will not persist with them in difficult situations, for ‘without vision, the people perish’ (Prow 29:18, Douai version). If, however, you are already at home with the theory, and if you truly accept that God asks you to be ‘an artisan of the new humanity’, as Vatican II puts it, then you can focus more on the praxis sections.

While our concern is with decision-making within groups, you may feel the need to enrich your own personal decision-making processes. You might consult Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment for a variety of spiritual practices, which can be helpful to the individual.

We are not trying to cover everything about meetings, but just to indicate some of their key elements. If you wish to learn more you can attend workshops led by us, or read further on specific areas of interest. Publishing details of books used in the text are given at the end of the book, as is a separate list of works that formed the background to our thinking.

Our thanks to the students whose experience and wisdom are enshrined here. They helped us to blend practice with theory, and to match insights with operative skills, while in turn the course enabled them to participate in meetings more effectively and more enjoyably. Thanks also to our colleagues at the Milltown Institute and All Hallows College, Dublin, and to the staff at Veritas for their expertise, support and patience.

CHAPTER ONE

THE CHALLENGE TO ENGAGE

Why Should I Engage?
Our focus is on how you can play a more significant role in groups and meetings, and it is the Christian vision that is articulated here. You do not have to be a Christian, but if you are there follows a certain vision of God’s world and of how God needs your help in transforming it. At the heart of that Christian vision is the Holy Spirit, who engages with us as we debate the way forward. The Spirit, of course, is not confined to attending meetings of Christians alone, but the Spirit may rightly expect Christians to be in the forefront of God’s call to action to transform a broken and pain-filled world.

The need for such action is clear when you watch the news, with its endless stories about the misuse of the world’s goods and the unfair treatment of so many of its inhabitants. The news reveals greed, selfishness, corruption, deceit, unethical behaviour, various forms of abuse, institutionalised violence, murder, wars, exclusion, ecological pollution, and so forth. This can understandably make good people despair of making any worthwhile contribution to a better future for themselves or their children. But, in the Christian vision, passivity and hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems are not an option. Why? Because the world is God’s, it is sustained, loved and cared for by God (Jn 3:16). God gives us energy, wisdom and skill to bring it to rights.

A Legend: ‘Who Speaks for Wolf?’
An Iroquois myth tells of a moment in the tribe’s history when the council of the braves met to decide on where to move for the next hunting season. The place chosen was, in fact, occupied by wolves, which attacked and killed many of them. The remaining members had to choose: either kill the wolves or move elsewhere. But killing the wolves would make them the sort of people they did not want to be, and so they chose to move on.

To avoid repeating their earlier error, they decided that in all future council meetings someone should be appointed to represent the wolf. The contribution of the representative would be invited with the question: ‘Who speaks for wolf?’

Who Speaks for God?
The central issue in this book is, ‘Who speaks for God?’ You are invited to consider whether it may in fact be your task to represent God at meetings and to speak for him. This can be both an exciting and a demanding challenge, especially since at most meetings God’s concerns are not, at least explicitly, part of the agenda. When you accept the challenge to speak for God and learn the needed skills, you will find that meetings are transformed. You will have a new lens with which to view what is going on, and you can often unobtrusively help to focus the group toward what is most productive. You will also have the sense of partnering the Good Spirit in the task of shaping a better world.

An Articulate Laity
Over many centuries, a paralysing passivity has dominated the minds of most Christians. Why is this? Originally the Church was seen as a fellowship (koinonia, 1 Jn 1:1-5), a community in the world distinguished by its special relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Each of the members had their own God-given gifts, which were to be at the service of others (1 Pt 4:10). Soon, however, before AD 100, the clergy began to be viewed as more important, more holy, than their fellow Christians, who were then called ‘laity’, which came from the Greek word for ‘people’. Whereas earlier the Christian community was surrounded by a secular world, now the clergy were the ‘holy’ group surrounded by a ‘secular’ laity in a hostile world. Church ‘officials’ adopted the trappings of secular society. Liturgy was ‘performed’ by the clergy before a passive laity, in a language they could not understand. Nor were the laity educated to deal with secular affairs; that was the domain of the secular prince or ruler. Although it has long been noted that, ‘For evil to succeed, it is enough for good people to do nothing’, the power structures of the Church meant that good Christians had little scope to engage in public affairs. Obedience, subordination and passivity were the characteristics desirable in the laity. It comes as a surprise to most Christians to be told that they are meant to be actively engaged and participative in the concerns of the Church and of the world. Yet that is the teaching of Vatican II, and that Council is already almost half a century old. A few quotations must suffice to illustrate the importance of the laity in the Council documents.

The Call of the Church in Vatican II

  • ‘It is the special vocation of the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will … There they are called by God to contribute to the sanctification of the world from within, like leaven’ (Lumen gentium, 31).
  • ‘[E]ven when occupied with temporal affairs, the laity can and must be involved in the precious work of evangelising the world’ (Lumen gentium, 35).
  • ‘[The laity] should collaborate … with all men and women of good will … Those who travel abroad on international activities, on business or on holiday should keep in mind that no matter where they may be they are the travelling messengers of Christ, and should conduct themselves as such’ (Apostolicam actuositatem, 8; 14).
  • ‘Then, under the necessary help of divine grace, there will arise a generation of new women and men, the molders of a new humanity’ (Gaudium et spes, 30).

I Wouldn’t Know What to Say!
The challenge to Catholics to engage in the world’s affairs is clearly a basic and recurring theme in Vatican II. How could it be otherwise, once the bishops began to reflect on the Church in the modern world? For it is the laity who make the Church present; clergy form a tiny percentage of the ‘people of God’. Twenty-five years after the Council, however, John-Paul II, aware of the resistance within the hierarchical Church to engage the laity fully, wrote Christifideles Laici (The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful, 1989). A guiding image in this document is the Parable of the Vineyard, with its leading question: ‘Why do you stand here idle?’ ‘Because no one has hired us’, is the response. To which the owner of the vineyard replies: ‘Go you too into my vineyard!’ The vineyard is the whole world, which is to be transformed according to the plan of God in view of the final coming of the kingdom of God. No one, says the pope, should remain idle in face of the needs of our times. Each lay person is personally and uniquely called by the Lord. The laity are the Church; this is their fundamental dignity, and they are on a level of equality with all others within the people of God. Their task is now what Christ’s was: to promote the kingdom of God and to participate in the work of creation. They are coworkers with God and with the hierarchy for the good of the world. Aware of their own unique dignity, the laity are to promote the dignity of the human person everywhere.

Such is a brief paraphrase of this stirring papal request for the laity to engage in the work of the Church. It is sad that this call has been echoed by few bishops and pastors as yet, but the laity must now be proactive in facing ‘the needs of our times’.

The Church’s Best Kept Secret!
Once you find yourself inside the vineyard, you need to know how to care for the vines. Where can you learn about the concerns of God in regard to the issues that may arise? The social teaching of the Christian Churches over the past century is extraordinarily rich in insights that could help to transform political, economic, ecclesial and social life, but this teaching often seems to be a well-kept secret. The better your grounding in the social teaching of the Church, the more wisdom you will be able to bring to the issues on the table. Consultants earn millions in providing expert advice at public hearings. Expert knowledge demands long study and analysis, for instance, regarding the ecological and social impact of a new energy development. Knowledge of Christian social teaching will give you a solid base from which to make helpful interventions. And if you’re not the ‘expert type’ you can still access knowledge at short notice, if you know where to look. To access helpful material, use the indices of Vatican II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought and the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

History as a Work of Art
Every human being is an artist, and their work of art is their life. Every one of us is continually in the process of constructing our lives by every decision we make. Ignatius wrote his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits for Christians who wish to practice the art of making good decisions, the practical decisions that with the help of God’s grace can make them authentic human beings living an authentic human life. (J.L. Connor (ed.), The Dynamism of Desire, p. 398)

We may add that together we are meant to shape human history into a work of art! Imagine a global work of art to which everyone contributes – it evokes and respects the creativity of everyone and it radiates beauty and joy. Such is what human history is meant to be. We could despair that history is not like that, but God’s intention is to make it so. Each of us is asked only to ensure that our own small corner of the canvas has something of the quality of a work of art, or to use another image, that the drama we play out in our lives matches the theme of the divine drama of the universe.

For Pondering
A member of a parish council commented on his experience as follows:

We muddle along as best we can. There’s plenty of goodwill, but we seem to waste a lot of time. We’re not focused. I don’t know what to do about it and I often feel like dropping out. I feel I’d be laughed at if I intervened … I don’t have much sense of God at these meetings.

Has this been something of your experience at meetings? If so, do the challenges outlined above give you ideas on how things might be improved?

Summary

  • God has a vision for the world and it should be a central point of reference at meetings.
  • Since meetings matter to God, they should matter to us, no matter how poorly they may be run!
  • According to Vatican II, we are to be ‘the artisans of a new humanity’.
  • We are called as Christians to speak for God at meetings.

CHAPTER TWO

MENTORING AND MEETINGS

Mentoring
From the previous chapter you have seen that a Christian has a specific role to play in meetings. You are the one whose role is ‘to speak for God’ or to watch out for the concerns of God and try to focus the group on them.

There is no ideal term to denote this role, but we propose the term ‘mentoring’, while we are aware that this term has various connotations. The MA module on which this book is based is ‘Group Spiritual Mentoring’, from which the term has arisen. If it helps you, use it; if not, use another term, such as ‘enabler’.

The term ‘mentoring’ has its own history. In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses was worried about his son Telemachus, so he asked a wise and reflective person to keep an eye on him and offer guidance as appropriate. The name of this figure of wisdom was Mentor. To mentor, then, is to enable development by offering wise counsel, so far as it is needed and welcome. Parents play the role of mentors to their children, though they may not always see themselves as wisdom figures.

Mentoring at meetings is not a designated role. Being a mentor simply infers that you try to bring something worthwhile to any group, whether it be a family gathering, a business meeting, a parish council or a jury. As a mentor you may have to decide on the spur of the moment whether to intervene and, if so, how best to offer your counsel. You will not know in advance whether or not your suggestions will be well received, but you will learn from the experience one way or the other. What matters is that you participate as actively and wisely as you can.

Spiritual Mentoring

  • The term ‘spiritual’ can be easily misunderstood as referring to the spiritual life of the group members, but its use here is significantly wider;The term ‘spiritual’ emphasises the fact that the Spirit is already present in any group;
  • The mentor’s task is to recognise, support and be a spokesperson for the Spirit in the group. In this sense, you are to be a ‘spiritual mentor’ in the group;
  • While as mentor you have wisdom born of experience, reflection and study, the primary wisdom figure in the group is the Spirit;
  • Ideally, all the members will take their cue from the Spirit, but whether they do or not you need to come in on your cue.

The task of acting as spokesperson for the Spirit may be a difficult and often thankless one, but it is hugely important for the well-being of the world. Before deciding that it is too heavy a task for yourself, recall that this was the challenge which God set the Jews: as God’s Chosen People, they were to shape their whole lives and make all their decisions in line with God’s directives as given in the law. Likewise, in the early Church Paul tells Christians to shape every aspect of their lives in harmony with the single law of love (Rom 12; 1 Cor 13). This call is both corporate and personal.

Mentoring at a School Board Meeting

Member A: I’m saying that those boys must be expelled!

Member B: Well, I’m telling you that this would be a disaster for the school!

Member C: Well, I can see where you’re both coming from, and I respect both of your points of view. I wonder if we can agree that we need to look to what might be best for all concerned: the school’s good name, the future of the boys, the demands of good discipline, and so on. This is a Christian school, so can we ask ourselves: ‘What does God wish us to do? What is God’s agenda?’ Can I suggest …

What is happening here? Member C shows respect for the speakers’ points of view; she does not pretend to have a better solution than either of them, but she is urging the need for a higher viewpoint. She brings God in on the debate, but even if it were unhelpful to mention God explicitly, her emphasis on what is best for all concerned may ease the tension a bit and gain some common ground. Rather than staying in adversarial mode (‘I think this but you think the opposite’) the members may begin to explore together what might best be done. If all goes well, the divine agenda – in this case, the good of the whole school and its individual members – becomes the point of reference for the discussion. Thus, private agendas are transcended and some freedom is gained to work towards what would be best all round. In the case given here, Member A, who was raised harshly, believes in the tough approach, while Member B is connected through marriage to one of the delinquent boys. These sub-conscious personal agendas clouded their judgement; by being challenged to take a higher viewpoint they become freer to choose more wisely.

What Happens at Meetings?
Our focus is on meetings, but what are they about? Meetings occur on two levels. The first is eminently practical. A cabinet is deciding how to allocate budget resources. A trade union group is considering whether to call a strike or to continue negotiations. A board of executives is planning a major takeover. A parish council is wondering whether, with already limited funds, to build a parish hall or to set up a refugee project. Another is debating the consequences of parish clustering. A school board of management is considering what to do after the resignation of the principal. A group of business people is deciding on a multi-million enterprise. A family is deciding whether or not to emigrate. And so it goes. Decisions shape our daily lives for good or ill, and decision-making power lies less and less with individuals than it does with groups, such as the UN, the EU, the G8, the Holy See, the Dail, voluntary organisations, banks and planning boards. Such is the first, practical and obvious level of meetings.

But What’s Really Going On?
There is, however, a deeper level to meetings: the divine level. God entrusts the world and its people to us. This becomes startlingly obvious to a couple who become parents to a helpless child; all their energy and wisdom becomes focused on the infant’s well-being. We are to focus a similar energy and wisdom on our world, we are to manage its resources well and to secure the well-being of others through well-made decisions. What is really at stake is the development of the divine project. God wants to build a world of justice, love and inclusion here and now. It is in our decisions that God’s project gains or loses ground. Since the Spirit’s task is to bring the divine project to completion, the Spirit is involved in meetings and engages our cooperation. The central concern of the Spirit is operative in us when we are free and at our best, for the Spirit’s question is: ‘What is the wisest and most loving thing for this group to do in this situation?’

Free and At Our Best
The Spirit does not work independently of us. As someone wisely said, the Spirit had to learn Hebrew in order to communicate with the Chosen People. The Spirit is at home in what is most deeply human. So when working with others, we must be in touch with what matters most to them, or else even good decisions will fall apart.

However, it takes a while for people to believe that you want to know what is really important to them. Consider the following dialogue in relation to the issue of the location of a drug rehabilitation centre nearby:

Question: ‘What do you think about this issue?’

Response: ‘Well, I don’t know …’

Question: ‘But does something bug you about it?’

Response: ‘Well, I am a Christian and all that, so I suppose …’

Question: ‘Okay, but what matters most to you?’

Response: ‘Are you really interested in what I want? Or are you just trying to push the God stuff?’

Question: ‘I want to know what means most to you as of now.’

Response: [Energy and feeling begin to emerge] ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I really think. To start with…

And so the truth begins to emerge. The truth can be painful, but it is what sets us free (Jn 8:32). Now a healthy dialogue can begin, and sooner or later the question can be asked: ‘What do you think is the wisest and most loving thing for us to do in this situation?’ The decision may fall short of what you (or God) might wish, but if it is truly the best decision in this situation, then it will be in line with the Spirit’s desire.

For Pondering

Reflect on a recent decision made by your group.

What is the wisest and most loving decision that could be made?

Summary

  • God invites us to be co-creators of an emerging world.
  • God’s criterion in making decisions is: ‘What is the wisest and most loving thing to do? This must be our criterion too.
  • You can be a mentor to a group, offering wise counsel on how best to proceed.
  • The Spirit should be seen to preside at a meeting of Christians.
  • When we make the best decisions we can, God’s agenda is moved forward.

CHAPTER THREE

LET THE REAL GOD SPEAK

A Weekday God
Jesus engaged endlessly with groups and tried to help them to catch on to God’s agenda and concerns. Our task is to do likewise with the Spirit’s help. Note that we are talking about groups that have decision-making functions that affect others. This is because Christianity is a corporate event, not an individualistic or private affair. Most of us would not think it wrong to stay home and watch TV when a neighbourhood meeting is going on around an agenda that doesn’t concern us. But could you as a Christian say that the issues affecting other people’s lives are of no concern to you, especially if the organisers of the meeting have asked you to support them with your skills and expertise? For, as we have seen from Vatican II, we are to be the artisans of a new humanity and, if so, we must engage with the concerns of humankind.

Putting it another way, we need to recognise that God is a God of weekdays as well as Sundays. ‘God comes to us disguised as weekdays’, says Aidan Mathews in his book In the Poorer Quarters (p. 21). In the Christian vision, reality is not divided between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’. Rather, everything is sacred; all belongs to God who makes and sustains everything. We are always dealing with God’s world, and God is concerned about it not only on Sundays, but throughout the week too. Faith and business life, which tend to be divorced, should, therefore, be in a lifelong relationship. The Spirit should be allowed to be as active during the week in the boardroom, the classroom and the marketplace as on Sundays in the church. The Christian CEO, building foreman, parish priest and school principal must steadily keep their eyes on the Spirit. Liturgy as acknowledgement of God is held on Sundays in churches, but should be held on weekdays in our places of work. When Vatican II calls for the full, conscious and active participation of Christians in liturgy, that level of participation must extend to ‘weekday liturgy’ in the marketplace. In other words, God’s concerns should inform our decisions.

Operative Beliefs About God
Operative beliefs contrast with notional beliefs. What set of beliefs, what images of God, am I actually working from? There can be a gap between our professed beliefs about God and what we actually operate out of on a daily basis. For example, early on in her book, Eat, Pray, Love, the author, Liz Gilbert, when asked what kind of God she believed in, responded: ‘I believe in a magnificent God!’ And her story shows that she operated out of that core belief in her ways of relating to God. By contrast, G.W. Hughes in his God of Surprises suggests that many Christians operate out of an image of God as a thoroughly unpleasant Uncle George, who demands a Sunday visit from his relatives under threat of torture.

Ask yourself, what do I mean when I say believe in God’? Do I mean that the God I really believe in is a remote being up there, who plays little part in my life, is unmoved by my difficulties, and who certainly doesn’t answer most of my petitions? Do I act out of an image of a god who is small-minded, critical, demanding, preoccupied with sin, unable to cope with the messiness of human life, and is this god now working on a less ambitious project than the ultimate happiness of all humankind? Is my god only a pumped up version of a human authority figure? In short, is my operative image of the true God too small, and would I wish instead to operate out of an image that is truly magnificent?

Let the Real God Speak!
The God revealed to us in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is relational, involved, loving and powerful. God’s first words to us, ‘Where are you?’ (Gen 3:16), express a desire for a relationship with us. The Exodus stor  reveals a God who is concerned about the sorry plight of the Chosen People and works mightily to rescue them. The God of the prophets cares endlessly for an exiled and wayward people who won’t listen. Jesus, who is the self-portrait of God, is totally relational and works in every possible way to bring life and hope to everyone: ‘He went about doing good’ (Acts 10:38). The New Testament closes with an image of God as victorious over all evil, a God who saves and brings eternal joy (Rev 21; 22).

A Social Spirituality
The real God is a social God, and to keep in tune with him we need a social spirituality. St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) articulates the best of Christian tradition about God’s relationship with the world. For Ignatius:

  • God is busy, active, interested, close, concerned, capable, engaged with our world;
  • We are the beloveds of God, so God wants to give us all we need;
  • God is universally provident, wise and good;
  • God deals directly with each of us to show us how we can best play our part in the world through wise decisions;
  • God teaches us like a good schoolteacher communicating with a child;
  • God labours in the world to bring it to rights and seeks our collaboration;
  • God is present in everything that happens: God is the cause of all that is good and works remedially to bring good out of the evil we cause;
  • God works with groups (Ignatius knew this from his own experience).

Such is the operational theology, or understanding of God, out of which this book is written. If we make high claims for the activity of the Spirit in relation to groups, this is because we are committed to a dynamic image of God as everywhere active in our world.

Who Owns This World Anyway?
We said above that God entrusts the world to us. However, we easily slide into the erroneous view that, therefore, God has distanced himself from the world. So we humans jump in and say: ‘We own it!’ This view operates in world affairs and God is seen – if at all – as an incidental and rather pathetic figure who has lost control. Nor are we Christians immune from this view, and so we lose courage in the task of being agents or spokespersons for the Spirit. When you hear the phrase ‘Mind the Spirit!’ do you perhaps feel that the Spirit is weak and therefore needs a lot of minding? In fact, the phrase means: ‘Pay attention to the Spirit!’

So let us look at the world from God’s point of view. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition there is no ambiguity about who owns the world: ‘All the world is mine!’ says God (Is 66:2). There are to be no competitors. The magnificent Genesis account reveals that all creation is from God (Gen 1; 2). Christian theology understands divine creation as contemporary and dynamic, because with God there is neither past nor future. The act of creation is now; the universe is sustained now by God’s creating Word. Were God’s approving Word to fall silent, we and the universe would disappear, as do the images on a TV screen when it is switched off. We walk not our own land but God’s – nothing belongs to us, all is gift, presented to us by God moment by moment.

In the image of the Garden of Eden (Gen 1-3), God owns the Garden, designs it and sets it up for the benefit of humankind. Adam and Eve (who represent us) are in it by invitation; we are to live in intimate relationship with God. The whole of the Bible reveals a struggle on God’s part to get humankind to inhabit the created world rightly. The story of the flood shows God’s regret at having created us, while the covenant with Noah is a promise that God won’t destroy humankind again. The Torah tells how the Chosen People are to live according to the prescriptions God gives to Moses. God is to preside at meetings and Moses is the spokesperson for God. The Prophets scold God’s unheeding and rebellious people and die in their efforts to get people to pay attention to God. And so we come to Jesus, who, as the light for the nations, shows everyone how to live according to the mind of God. Jesus leads by example: he dies because his proclamation of the reign of God is rejected by the powerful. He is then found to be alive and becomes  the rallying point for those who believe in him and in his message. Then we come into the story. In our time and place we are to engage with God’s concerns. We are escorts of grace as we try, with the Spirit’s help, to shape a better world for all God’s people.

What do we learn from this?

  • That since the world is God’s and not ours, it is holy ground on which we walk as privileged guests;
  • That in misusing the material world, we are abusing what is God’s property;
  • That we too are God’s; we are not of our own making. Indeed, ‘all is ours’, but within the context of our total dependence on God;
  • That God is massively involved in all that goes on both in our individual lives and in meetings too, which are our concern here;
  • That God is not simply ‘at the end of the line’ to be called on only if needed, as in ‘phone a friend’ in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Rather, God keeps the whole show going;
  • That at meetings we are not battling singlehandedly ‘for God’, but instead are delegates of the Spirit who is silently present;
  • That the Spirit is the divine mentor, whose unobtrusive wisdom is available to us if we attend rightly.

How does all this affect you when you are planning to engage in a meeting?

What Does God Do All Day?
God’s creative activity in our world has traditionally been called ‘salvation’. It is a tired term, but still rich. Salvation means ‘well-being/health’ (from the Latin salus). In everyday language, to be saved means to be rescued from dangerous or evil situations. On a deeper level, we need to be saved from all the harm we create through self-destructive behaviour. Ultimately, we cannot save ourselves; sustained goodness is beyond us and we create problems that we cannot solve. On the deepest level, then, salvation is an umbrella term which encompasses God’s intention not only to liberate us from whatever is destructive of human wellbeing – wrongdoing, tragedy, oppression, spoilt relationships, sickness, suffering, death – but to raise us to the dignity and joy of membership in the family life of God. The arguments for believing that divine strategies are already operating to resolve humanly insoluble problems are well explored by the Canadian philosopher-theologian, Bernard Lonergan (see Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, chaps. 18-20).

If a child asked: ‘What does God do all day?’ you could say that God is busy preparing a big party for us all and wants everyone to bring something to it that will make the others happy.

Meetings offer us the opportunity to implement the divine strategy for a better world by making choices that are for the good of all. Think of the 1997 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland or the later decisions by Nationalists and Unionists to put their weapons beyond use. These are instances of salvation operating as a collaborative venture between God and human beings.

How Jesus Made Decisions
Jesus was led by the Spirit throughout his life. He got little help from the disciples when making his decisions, and he was like us in the sense that he had to think endlessly about what was the wisest and most loving choice to make in the concrete situations that confronted him. He had to decide whether or not to gather disciples and whether or not to risk sending them out in his name, given their very limited grasp of his vision for the world. He had to decide whether to make himself endlessly available to a healing and teaching ministry or to give precious time to nourishing his own heart in prayer. He had to decide whether to take on the oppressive authorities of the Temple and the State or to compromise his ideals, and whether to risk his life on behalf of those excluded from the community of his day or to avoid disturbing the status quo of Jewish society … and so forth, endlessly. He always operated within an imperfect or hostile context, but he always did what would have pleased his father (Jn 8:29), even at great cost to himself. He did all this because he was transparently allied with the Spirit. Of all the people who have ever lived, God’s project for our well-being found its best ambassador in him.

Becoming Like Jesus
‘Even in this world we have become as he is’ (1 Jn 2:6). The same Spirit of God that led Jesus wishes to lead us too, so that we can bring the mind and heart of Jesus not only to our individual decisions, but to whatever meetings we attend. Jesus promises his presence at meetings: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20). Jesus attends meetings through his Spirit and this can be a comfort to us. Insofar as we are tuned into the ‘frequency’ of the Spirit, we may be able to introduce others to the same ‘frequency’. God is always trying to break in on human consciousness and God uses our help, if we are alert, as Jesus was. If you have the mind and heart of Jesus (Phil 2:5) you can stand for God’s values: truth, dignity, justice, peace, love and the inclusion of the despised and unwanted. You may feel yourself powerless to influence a group, as Jesus often felt. He operated in imperfect situations, and so do you, but he always tried to bring life to each group (Jn 10:10) and you can too. He believed that ‘for God, nothing is impossible’ (Mt 19:26), so he never despaired of people. He laid himself on the line and trusted his Father to do the seemingly impossible task of converting human hearts to what is truly good and loving. He interceded for his enemies and he still intercedes for the world. We may pray to be ‘led by the spirit of God’ as he was (Rom 8:14).

For Pondering

  • What images of God are you actually working from?
  • Is your God one of devotion or of action? When did you last pray on your way to a meeting?
  • ‘You will be my witness at the next meeting!’ (Lk 24:48). Does this frighten you or give you courage?

Summary

  • This world belongs not to us but to God.
  • ‘Bidden or unbidden, God is present’ (C.G. Jung). Meetings thus become sacred spaces.
  • Our decisions should be in tune with the divine agenda for the world’s good.
  • Since human beings are God’s works of art (Eph 2:10), our decisions must promote human dignity.
  • Every action of Jesus was life-giving. Our decisions should be likewise.

 

 

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