Conversatio Divina

Part 1 of 16

Recognizing Our Condition

Tara M. Owens

But you don’t want to run ahead of yourself.
Begin with love.” —John Cassian

Empower us to carry each other’s burdens.

It’s a prayer I pray each week, along with the rest of my church family as we stand together on Sunday. I attend a liturgical church, and our communal prayers—for hope, for peace, for salvation, for thanksgiving, for forgiveness—are one of my favorite moments during the service. Together, we lift our hearts and our requests to God. We speak aloud the names of those for whom we pray and the circumstances around the world that beg for peace and resolution. We pray for needs we know and needs we don’t know. We give voice in prayer to what we hear God whisper to us. When members of the family can’t pray, struck mute by fear or doubt or pain, the community carries them on a rising tide of petition that washes them up on the shores of grace. I know, because I’ve felt that tide carry me.

But over the past months, I’ve struggled with this, my most cherished moment in worship next to the Eucharist. I’ve struggled and squirmed and felt shameful. Why?

Because I’ve been the one in need.

Empower us to carry each other’s burdens,” my brothers and sisters pray. And then the leader says, “Lift up your prayers for those in need.” My church family knows our circumstances. Their hearts ache with ours. I bite my lip and I hold my breath, because I can hear them. I can hear them praying. They are praying my name. My husband’s name. They are praying for us.

Empower us to carry each other’s burdens.

I suspect I’m not the only one in ministry who fidgets when I’m asked to be the one receiving instead of the one giving. Most of us came to official or unofficial ministry because we want to give. We want to love. We want to be transformed into Christlikeness in the process. I know that’s my desire.

And yet, I prefer to be the one in control. Despite my awareness that God’s strength is perfected in weakness, I find myself wanting to be the one with the answers, the comforting presence, the cup of water for those who are thirsty. I don’t want to be the one dying of thirst.

That’s why it’s so difficult for me to hear my church pray, week after week, for me. Instead of being the one serving, I’m the one receiving. Instead of being the one offering hope, I’m a mess. I don’t get to pick and choose who’s helping me; I just need help.

Empower us to carry each other’s burdens.

As I’ve squirmed in this place, God brought me back to Luke 10 and the parable of the Good Samaritan (this season of struggle happened as I was editing this issue of Conversations, after all, and Luke 10 is a great place to start when thinking about contemplation and action.)

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of my favorites because it pushes me in so many ways. It pushes me to care and to serve, to keep my loving in line with my living. But, like many of Christ’s teachings, it has a twist. This twist is related to the context in which Jesus was speaking. To the Jews with whom Jesus traveled, the term “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron, something along the lines of “dark sunshine” or “living dead.” Not only were the Samaritans the bitterest enemies of the Jews, they were considered useless, unworthy, and unable to serve God.

As the disciples listened to the conversation between Jesus and the teacher of the law, they would have done everything possible not to put themselves in the Samaritan’s shoes. They wouldn’t have picked the role of priest or Levite—it’s clear in the way Christ spoke that neither of those men was loving his neighbor at all. So the only role left to any Jewish listener was that of the unfortunate traveler from Jerusalem to Jericho, the one whose pain, helplessness, despair, and destitution are the crux of the story.

Right. Right. Luke 10 matters not only because it asks me—us—to give and serve, but also because it asks us to remember that we are the poor, beaten, helpless ones. Not only before we encounter Christ, but ever after, we are in need of rescuing from the sins and hardships of this world. It is precisely our neediness that helps us to come alongside those in need—but we must recognize our condition first.

As evidenced by my squirming, shamed reaction to being prayed for, that’s the role that is the most difficult for me to accept. My guess is it was just as difficult for the Jews traveling with Jesus. And that it’s just as difficult for you too. The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible study notes put it this way:

[The Parable of the Good Samaritan] is about realizing our neighbor is the one who is kind to us, regardless of skin color, religion, politics, or personal past history. This may be much more difficult than finding the inner strength and grace to stop and give aid and comfort to our enemy. To comprehend our utter inability to help ourselves, swallow our pride, and permit those we dislike or detest to save us is to come to the point of calling them friends. It is the crossing of an enormous barrier on this earth, certainly one of the most unspannable in human nature. It is perhaps as difficult as the gap experienced by people who have always considered God false, or, if he exists, a monster and then who discover, in fear and disgust and awe, that God is the only one stretching out to bring them back from the brink of death.The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (New York: Harper Bibles, Study Notes © 2005), 1905. Emphasis mine.

Empower us to carry each other’s burdens.

Challenged as I was by my circumstances, I came to this issue of Conversations postured very defensively. Knowing that the theme was “Contemplation and Action,” I braced myself for what felt like the inevitable conclusion that I am not doing enough, caring enough, and loving my neighbor enough. When you’re tired and hurting, which I suspect many of you reading this article are, it’s easy to assume that every exhortation to change is aimed directly at you. It’s easy to forget that the neighbor being reached out to isn’t a stranger on a far continent—it’s you. Cynically (and now, ironically), I even prepared myself to count the number of times Luke 10 would be referenced—for reference not only to our Samaritan friend, but also to the story that follows immediately after that parable, the story of Mary (contemplation) and Martha (action with an attitude). It’s easy and somewhat popular to simplify the story of Mary and Martha into a parable of contemplation over action, but that interpretation is not supported by the context of the passage. Following, as it does, after the parable of the Good Samaritan, what is at issue is not that Martha is active and serving (Jesus himself seems quite partial to cooking as an act of service), but that she is doing so with anxiety and ego. If she, like Brother Lawrence, had been serving with joy, it is more than likely that Jesus would not have reprimanded her as He did.

What I discovered in reading through the tenderly written articles in this issue of Conversations is what I hope that you, too, will find on these pages: kindness. From Scott Sabin’s excellent account of his struggles to bring hope to Haiti and other countries in the midst of overwhelming poverty and devastation in “How Not to Be a Hero” to Lisa Graham McMinn’s “Food for the Soul: Eating as an Act of Justice,” in which she shares her personal journey to give herself “permission to explore a life that sounded a bit too much like hippie pantheism.” From David Benner’s discussion of how lectio divina opens us to a life of creative action grounded in the love of God in “Opening to God” to Lyle SmithGraybeal’s thought-provoking “Unifying Prayer and Action: Lessons Learned,” in which he shares the way prayer has changed his actions, and his actions of compassion have changed the way he prays. In each of these articles and in the others that fill the pages of this journal, I found (and I hope you find) not another bar that I am failing to reach but an invitation to a place of healing and hope. I found that the authors reached out a hand to me, as they do to you, and offered me a place of rest. They lifted me out of the dirt and darkness of my own self-centered situations into a larger story—the story that Jesus is telling of love. They treated me, as they will treat you, like their neighbor.

Empower us to carry each other’s burdens.

For me, some of the authors represented in these pages feel as different from me theologically as the Jews and the good Samaritan would have seemed to each other. This may be the case for you, as well. Conversations has never been a forum that strives for theological unanimity—we aim to offer a place of dialogue centered on Christ. Conversations is meant to spark just that, conversations around the issues and articles that believers from around the world share with us. We do not expect you to agree with every word we print. What we do hope, however, is that you will not eschew the hand that reaches out to you in kindness, just because it may be a Samaritan extending the hand.

This may make you squirm. I understand that position all too well. It isn’t by my power than any of my journey into healing, into receiving, into contemplation and action has occurred. It is by the power of Jesus Christ crucified, the One who reached out to me while I was yet dead in my sins. It is by His power and love that I pray, that I serve, that I love, and that I receive the love and wisdom of those whom I dislike or with whom I may disagree.

Empower us to carry each other’s burdens, O God. Help us to see the unity of contemplation and action. Let us live lives of love, giving and receiving not only with those who are easy to call “neighbor” but also with those with whom we disagree. Empower us to receive help when it is needed. Empower us to give help to those who are different from us. Let us honor Christ in all we pray and all we do.


Tara M. Owens is the senior editor of Conversations Journal. a certified spiritual director with Anam Cara Ministries (, she practices in Colorado and around the world through Skype and other technologies. She is profoundly grateful to do ministry and life with her husband and best friend, Bryan. If you’d like to continue the conversation with Tara, she can be reached at, or you can follower her on twitter @t_owens.