Sheltering-in-place can be an energy-sucking, life-draining experience for extroverts like me. As a parish pastor, I am a people-person in a people job that now has no people. Yes, we have meetings, book groups and classes on Zoom during which we plan, learn, and even play games to surprising effect. But it is not the same and constant electronic communication is often depleting rather than life-giving.
Electronic interaction does not convey another person’s emotions, expressions, and energy like in-person conversations where I receive immediate feedback, catch nuances of body language, or notice unspoken thoughts that flash across the face. Being with others energizes me, and being alone, while essential and enjoyable, needs the energy-giving balance of real people. I miss being in worship together, and while I hold people in my mind and heart as I preach into a video camera, I miss the gathered community. It has become abundantly clear not only why humans are social creatures, but also why God calls the church into Christian community as the body of Christ together.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when earlier in the shelter-in-place order, my prayers revealed the Spirit’s new goal for my growth during this time. I was carrying on an internal conversation with God during my morning ministrations one day, wondering what God wanted me to do. The Spirit’s urging entered my head, startling me at its directness and cutting me to the quick: Now you can learn to love without manipulation; come to Me for love, for all you need.
What did this really mean? I thought I gave a lot to others in ministry without manipulating them to my own ends—to be sure, outcomes are not always what I would choose. I inquired deeper. I realized God is inviting me into an even deeper spiritual relationship that allows me to love and serve people without any attention to what I get in return—love, affirmation, feedback, relationships, even “extroversion energy.” Is this what the mystics aspired to in their prayer life—St. Francis, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and others? Not that I would ever compare myself to them, but the deepening spiritual life calls us to more and more fully satisfy our needs in God so we require less stuff, have fewer appetites, and hunger after fewer desires.
I wonder if God wants to me to think less about what I love and enjoy about ministry and the church, and more about what I love and enjoy about God, allowing ministry to flow from that? Maybe God wants me to wonder less about what ministry I am to do in a church member’s life, and instead, listen more deeply to what God is doing in their life? Maybe God is inviting me to spend more time receiving Jesus’ love for me, so I have an overflowing cup from which to pour, regardless of the external circumstances in which this ministry is shared? God was calling me to look more deeply inward than I ever had before.
I shared this spiritual challenge with two friends—one a counselor and one a Bishop—and they, too believed they needed to reflect on what it means to be a care-giver who loves and serves without manipulation, extrovert or not. Those of us in helping professions are in these positions because making a difference in other people’s lives also makes us feel good. How do the limits that the COVID-19 pandemic place on our work of helping others hold up a mirror to our own underlying motivations? How can we become purer in how we give, always relying on an eternal, internal Source for our needs rather than the feedback loop of good feelings that come from those we serve?
This takes a spiritual courage, a new level of self-examination and a deeper trust in the daily, moment-by-moment presence of the Spirit with me. I have begun to ask myself if the questions I am posing, the conversations I am having, the email I am sending, the ministry I am offering, constitute giving love without manipulation, without seeking to meet my needs in the process. I have expanded my own time in meditation and reflection as I seek to discover answers these questions. What at first felt like a sharp judgment, is really an invitation for me to experience the ever deeper presence of God filling me as a well-spring of holy love.
None of this magically reverses the life-draining experience of persistent electronic communication or the real human and Christian needs for community. What I am beginning to discover is that days with little or no human contact outside my home require a different rhythm to be life-giving. Zoom meetings are best spread out and followed by physical movement and prayer, which need to be planned as part of my schedule. This small change does a great deal to manage my energy since it refills my physical and spiritual cup. It begins to re-orient how I plan my schedule, inviting me to make a “spiritual schedule” as much as a work schedule. Perhaps that is what loving without manipulation is, after all.