The Patient Practice of Sail Making

A little excerpt from the book I’m trying to finish on Luke’s view of the church.

The movement and power of the Holy Spirit explains the practices and shape of the church in Acts. This statement bears some emphasis. In my tradition, structure and practices were constitutive of the church. We were the church because we had the right polity and the right practices of worship. When this is your view of the church, you have little need for the Holy Spirit. Consequently, our congregations are not built for discernment. We prize control and mastery, rather than surprise and pliability. If the church is a boat, we are building oars to propel the boat under our own power, rather than sails to receive the empowering wind of the Holy Spirit. My sense is that most congregations are building oars (or engines!) rather than sails. Put plainly, many congregations are built for taking initiative rather than receiving power. So, what would it take to put them in the business of sail making? Or, how would a community be structured to make it’s posture more receptive?

Jesus’ instruction to his followers is to wait. In our world, we earn no cultural cred for waiting. Waiting sounds to us like a waste of time. It makes us think of the DMV or the long lines of an amusement park. Waiting is non-productive, and we feel valuable only when we are producing or consuming. Waiting is slow and we value fast. Congregations, too often, double down on this cultural value. Instead of slowing the pace, we pile on, equating membership in a church with program involvement. “We don’t want you to simplify your life or slow you down,” we tell our parishioners, “we want to provide you with spiritual fuel so that you can navigate your hurried life better.”

The anecdotal evidence for hurried congregations seems overwhelming. Congregations are veritable beehives of activity, to the point that the program life of the congregation becomes the proverbial tail wagging the dog. The infrastructure needs of a program driven church are enormous and require constant feeding. Recruiting staffing for various programs, especially for children and youth, is never ending. Even a small congregation will list dozens of ministries on their websites, hoping to impress would-be members that they can meet their needs the way larger congregations can.

Those who plan and organize worship will tell you that worship is on the clock every week and that the one thing it cannot be is boring. As a result, “dead time,” or silence, is almost never intentional, but a mistake, the result of poor planning. I recently had a pastor tell me that they stopped processing to the Lord’s Supper table, opting instead to pass the emblems down the aisles, because it took too long for everyone to move to tables. “There are only a few things,” he said, “for which we are willing to lengthen a service.” Apparently the sacrament of the Eucharist is not one of them. I seldom attend a congregation that invites its members during worship into contemplative space, slow space, attentive space.

When I consult with congregational leaders, I try to impress upon them the importance of practices of attentiveness so that they can lead the congregation in discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit. They often claim that this seems like weak leadership. It seems indecisive and takes way too much time. Members reinforce this perception, urging leaders to state a direction, any direction, and lead. To them, the one thing leadership cannot include is waiting. Activity, busyness, urgency. These communicate purpose and direction. It’s oar building.

I’ve mentioned the word “attentiveness” several times now. The cost of a frenetic life is a loss of attentiveness. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Charles Taylor have taught me to think of the importance of attentiveness in relation to our being in the world. All of us function in in the world in relation to a shared imagination, what Taylor calls a “social imaginary.” In other words, our life in the world comes with shared assumptions that are necessary for us to navigate life. We can’t rethink these assumptions as we participate in the world. We have to assume that driving on the right side of the road is a shared value (in most places), or that the proper place to join a line is at the end, and that being a Cubs fan inevitably involves disappointment. In small ways and great ways, in ways articulated and tacit, we assume a shared world. And the faster the world goes, the more things we have to assume. This map, or social imaginary, is the world as it appears to us, not necessarily the world as it actually is. By necessity, as we hurry through our world, we lose our ability to attend to things, to let things appear to us on their own terms. We lose the capacity for surprise and reflection. We’re imposing a world instead of receiving a world.

I’m convinced that all spiritual practices worth their salt in some way slow us down. They don’t just interrupt our regular routines, they invite us into a slower way of being in the world so that we might be more attentive, and through attentiveness to discern more clearly the leading of God’s Spirit. They put us, not in a posture of grasping or acquiring, but of receiving or waiting.

So, waiting for power from on high is more than a detail specific to Acts 1 (i.e., in this instance, wait for power from on high). Rather, waiting is a posture necessary for receiving and participating in the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit. And leaders in contemporary congregations face an uphill battle in convincing themselves and others that waiting is a powerful action. It is, however, the necessary posture for all the observations that will be made in following chapters. Being drawn together into the life of the Holy Spirit is impossible apart from waiting. It does take more time initially than organizational cultures that value speed and efficiency, but over time the patient practices related to waiting create a powerful ecology that bears enduring fruit. These practices eventually become a powerful way of life.

Let me repeat the contrast I’m drawing here. The contrast is not between slow and fast, though sometimes waiting can seem slow. The contrast is between God’s initiative and the church’s, between building oars or sails. If our desire is to create a posture in our congregation and its members of attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, then practices related to waiting constitute the fastest path toward that end.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to The Patient Practice of Sail Making

  1. Steve says:

    Phenomenal illustration/contrast–“oars vs sails.” I will need to slow down to deliberate on this insightful Dei-liberation. Very helpful–thanks.

  2. Excellent thoughts. I would, however, point out that from my observations and conversations that many would say that they ARE being patient and waiting for the winds of the Spirit to move them. But some have never bothered to hoist their sails. There is no preparation, only a desire to be “zapped” in some miraculous way by this wind and be magically transported to some idyllic destination.

    For others of us our sails may indeed be deployed but we wind up in one of two circumstances. The first is that we’re not paying attention and don’t recognize the wind when it comes. Maybe it’s part of culture creep that offers so many things that vie for our attention and we don’t sense the breeze. Or maybe we’re just too busy to feel the breeze.

    The other is that the wind begins to blow from a different direction than what our sails are set for and we’re unwilling to trim our sails to take advantage. In other words, we don’t want to make changes in our lives to let this wind carry us in a new direction. We want the wind to take us only in OUR direction. Anything else in not what WE want.

    And as with most – if not all – things related to our spiritual lives, patience and attentiveness are fractal. They are true at the individual level. They are true at the congregational level. And they are true at the Kingdom level.

  3. JoAnne Toews says:

    Thank you, Mark. Very timely reflection for us at Stoney Creek right now. I will be re-reading your article several times and sharing with others.

  4. Marty Score says:

    Interesting thoughts! As I reflect on this it occurs to me that a boat under full sail will be much faster and cover more water than a boat on oars will ever do, even if we wait for the sails to fill…

  5. This is great, both the content and the metaphor. I look forward to sharing with others. Peace, Kevin

    Sent from my iPhone


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