Here is the text of the devotions that I shared on the evening of the 50th anniversary banquet for the S-LC last month:
In the Service-Learning Center, the professional staff begins each year sharing a list of hopes and expectations we have for our student employees. One of those hopes is that they develop “responsible habits of acquiring new knowledge and incorporating it in a life of active prayer and civic engagement.” This is, in typical Calvin fashion, a mouthful of carefully chosen words expressing a deep conviction that looks great on paper. We have to unpack it and enact it for it to be any good.
When introducing this to students we acknowledge that much of the new knowledge students are acquiring in our line of work is about the miserable state of our world: racism, inadequate housing, lead poisoning, under-resourced schools, blighted neighborhoods, food insecurity. That misery can quickly feel overwhelming. We are all too often tempted to cordon off this knowledge from the rest of our lives, occasionally thinking piteous thoughts about those whose lot is worse off than ours. Alternatively, we can dwell on the disparities in our world with despair, loudly spewing cynical rants. But these are not very responsible habits for dealing with the knowledge we’ve acquired. We instead suggest a twofold response: incorporate it into a life of active prayer and civic engagement.
The Reformed tradition provides some helpful language to support this—God’s good creation has fallen into this miserable state, but through Christ, all the world is being redeemed—but as you can see by the luminaries after whom we have named our tables this evening, (Wendell Berry, Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Wangari Maathai, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez, John Perkins, Mother Teresa, Jane Addams) the S-LC appreciates the opportunity to learn from other faith traditions as well.
The motto of the Benedictines is “Ora et Labora:” Pray and work. St. Benedict viewed prayer and work as partners, and believed in combining contemplation with action. The phrase expresses the need to balance prayer and work in monastic settings and has been used in many religious communities from the Middle Ages onwards. The Benedictines also take a vow of stability, committing their lives to a faithful presence in a specific place. These Benedictine values have found new life in the New Monastic movement that birthed, “Common Prayer, A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,” a daily prayer book with which we have opened our S-LC staff meetings for the past several years.
This book invokes many of those whose names are on these tables and many others who live into the idea of “Ora et Labora” in response to the misery in the world. Each day among other patterns includes a joint praying of the Lord ’s Prayer. But before we can pray and work, we need to have a vision to pray for and work towards.
We need to imagine Shalom, another idea that is not foreign to the S-LC, a state of well-being and right relationship between humanity, creation, and God.
I often pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a sort of mantra as I walk through the Creston neighborhood where I live. I ask myself, “What would it look like for God’s kingdom to be present here? for this place on earth to seem more like heaven?”
Then I imagine Christ’s return and a ripple effect miraculously transforming the cityscape around me: the weeds sprouting from the cracks in the sidewalks disappear and the pavement is whole again. The vacant mom & pop grocer is once again selling fresh, healthy produce to neighbors. The candy wrappers and grocery bags that litter the street vaporize before my eyes. The third grader who is about to be held back due to his illiteracy becomes an engaged learner. The porn shop is replaced by an art gallery.
But as I continue to pray, I realize that God’s providence for this neighborhood includes the hands and feet of his disciples. We must pull the weeds and rebuild the pavement. We must invest in the small business owner who is willing to risk a small-scale grocery store on the street corner. We must opt for more sustainable packaging for the products we purchase, and dispose of what hasn’t found its way to the dustbin. We must read weekly with the kindergartener at the local school so that by the time she takes the standardized tests in third grade she is proficient and excited about learning. We must pray for the Spirit to change the hearts of people who produce and consume pornography, such that they come to a respectful view of human sexuality and appreciate true beauty.
We pray to ask God for the imagination to see shalom in a place, to see where it is already coming, to see where we can add to it, to see where we’re standing in the way and to confess that. We will get there by praying for it and enacting it…how does God’s kingdom come? It is through his people, the church who were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
In short, we must bend our will to that of God our father, who has a plan for his creation, and we must step up to fulfill our vocations within that plan if we are to hope to see the fruit thereof. As we do this, the line between Ora et Labora begins to fade.
Jan and Sharon met with the principals at Sigsbee and Henry Elementary to set up tutoring. Jonathan and Jane supported students who initiated the moving service for evicted Grand Rapidians without the resources to move themselves (we still get calls about that service even though it was discontinued years ago). Katie VanZanen encouraged her tutee to finish high school and attend college. Many of us spent the afternoon planting a bioswale. In a way, those actions are prayers in and of themselves: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done. Here on earth, just like it is in heaven. Give us what we need today.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after walking alongside Martin Luther King to advocate for Civil Rights mused: “when I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
Now, before we enjoy the bounty of this meal that has been prepared for us to celebrate God’s act of renewal through our prayers and work of the last fifty years, I’m going to ask you to join me in praying the Lord’s Prayer. We’ll leave enough space for any variation you may have learned, as has become our tradition. Then I’ll encourage to continue praying with your feet and hands in the next fifty years.