Lisa Nichols Hickman: The threefold practice of abiding
BigStock / kesipun
Abiding is difficult in this busy age. But the practices of silent contemplation, shared reflection and anticipation of God’s grace give leaders a way to abide with those they lead, writes a pastor.
In the mid-19th-century hills of Scotland, Henry F. Lyte could never have envisioned a hashtag for his hymn “Abide With Me.”
Today, the invitation to abide is a radical countercultural stance in a flurried world of information just one click away.
I began thinking about the practice of abiding this winter, after reading Elizabeth Strout’s novel that shares a title with Lyte’s haunting hymn. I realized that abiding is an important leadership skill to cultivate in today’s world.
The novel tells the story of a 1950s New England minister, the Rev. Tyler Caskey, who has suffered the loss of his wife and is left with two young daughters.
Every character in the book -- the grief-stricken pastor (whose name, you’ll notice, is distinguished from the word “casket” only by the questioning letter “y”), the housekeeper-turned-confidante, the veteran disabled by PTSD, the well-meaning but intrusive schoolteachers of Caskey’s older daughter, the local town (and church) gossips -- every one of them is struggling with loss.
In the face of that loss, what they need most is someone simply to abide with them. But even in a time not riddled with the multiplicity of diversions we face today, the ability to sit quietly with others and remain without distractions is largely beyond reach.
The irony of life in their small town is that each day provides countless opportunities to rub elbows, exchange cordialities and perhaps even get bruised in the interchanges, yet none of those moments provides what they need most: a person to “abide” with them.
I have seen a beautiful example of abiding in action in my small town (which is not unlike the West Annett of Strout’s book). Here, a local pastoral counselor leads a weekly group of women in the practice of abiding.
First, the group sits with either a poem or a piece of Scripture in silent meditation for 20 minutes, letting the text stir up what the soul is needing to say. Then members of the group listen to one another, allowing each person to bear witness.
Although members may be tempted to give advice, this space is a place to “abide,” not to advise. During the final part of the group’s time together, the leader asks each person to respond to the question, “What is the grace you most need today?”
This leader offers a threefold practice in abiding: silent contemplation, shared reflection and anticipation of God’s grace.
These three practices share the sense of the dictionary definition of “abide”: to remain, to continue in relationship, to wait alongside, to dwell beside. They also share the sense of the etymological root of the word “abide”: to wait onward with.
We wait onward in silent contemplation of God’s word. We wait onward in shared reflection of its meaning for our lives and world. We wait onward in the anticipation of God’s grace unleashed.
We see these three practices in Strout’s novel as well. Caskey models the first practice of abiding -- silent contemplation -- as he cultivates a practice of meditative reading with theological greats. His favorite conversation partner is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose words guide and challenge Caskey in his daily living and working.
“Isn’t it a characteristic of a grown man, in contrast to an immature person,” Bonhoeffer writes from his prison cell, “that his center of gravity is always where he actually is?” Abiding with Bonhoeffer’s words allows Caskey to recalibrate his life and vocation.
The practice of abiding in silent contemplation with a theological conversation partner matters to Caskey, and we see as the book unfolds how it begins to matter to his congregation also. For Caskey to have the spaciousness to abide with others as pastoral leader, the practice of abiding with God in prayerful meditation and theological reflection must come first. How often I forget this truth.
The second practice of abiding -- shared reflection -- takes a whole narrative arc to unravel in Strout’s post-Korean War, small-town world. The hoped-for practice of a community abiding and listening to each other in the deepest of ways is missing for most of the story. In fact, it is just this absence that compels the story and keeps the reader turning the pages.
And it is the ultimate revelation of this practice at a key moment in worship that is the climax of the novel. While I do not intend to give the story away, I will note that a hymn offers a nuance where ordinary words fall short:
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The hymn becomes the vehicle for shared reflection by a community in crisis.
The third practice of communal abiding -- anticipation of God’s grace unleashed -- occurs precisely at this moment in worship. Here, the community dwells briefly in the real presence of God. In that moment of unleashed grace, they wait onward together, singing:
I need your presence every passing hour.
What but your grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like yourself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
The practice of “waiting onward” in pastoral leadership requires abiding with real presence in life’s complexities, abiding in committed patience in periods of exhausting waiting, and abiding in eschatological hope in the practice of pointed persistence toward God’s ultimate abode. These practices of abiding in pastoral leadership create that “center of gravity” Bonhoeffer hoped to cultivate, where abiding presence reveals itself in daily living.
After Easter, we meet in the post-resurrection narrative of Luke 24 the two disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “And they constrained Him, saying, ‘Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and now the day has declined.’ And He entered in to abide with them” (Luke 24:29 BLB).
Faced with loss, the two disciples invited the stranger to remain with them. Amid all our flurried activities, perhaps the invitation to abide is a leadership lesson we can learn from the early disciples who knew that waiting onward with mattered more than anything else on their to-do list.