Focusing the Spirit

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andy Acton

The reason why I enjoy attending the NEXT National Gathering is because my mind and heart is always fed with a multitude of ideas from a variety of speakers, presentations, workshops, sermons, stories and worship services.  Each time that I feast on this cornucopia of creativity and truth-telling, I say to myself: “This is a lot of great stuff to chew on!”

tsr_4445_webAnd yet, it’s A LOT OF STUFF TO CHEW ON! There are so many amazing, wise, convicting, prophetic statements and concepts expressed at NEXT—so many “aha!” and “wow!” moments that my mind and heart actually become as stuffed as my stomach following a three course meal at a restaurant.

This is not a bad thing per se; however it’s challenging to figure out exactly what to do with the brand new thoughts swirling around. Immediately I start imagining how to share and implement every awesome idea I heard in the next month or two, but then quickly realize it’s too damn much and completely unrealistic. Thus, I end up feeling a bit bloated.

So it was nice and quite fitting that my last workshop toward the end of the conference happened to be “The Impact of Howard Thurman, Mystic and Model for Contemplative Social Activism.”

I began the session with some rudimentary knowledge about Thurman but I left the workshop knowing so much more about a beautiful preacher and prophet whose work on mindful meditation as a means to achieve nonviolent resistance influenced many prominent religious leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

However, with these new learnings, I didn’t feel inundated. My mind and heart were at ease. And that was because the workshop leaders played one of Thurman’s ruminations on caring for one’ self, which was aptly titled Meditations of the Heart.

During the audio recording, Thurman’s deep, resounding voice first invites the listener to “center down,” which he explains is “more than the concentration of the mind. It is the focusing of the spirit while the body is relaxed.” And then he begins:

How good it is to center down. I sit down and see myself pass by.

The streets of my mind seethe with endless traffic.


My spirit resounds with clashings, with noisy silences,

while something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment

and the resting lull.


With full intensity I seek for the quiet passes,

a fresh sense of order in my living; a direction, a strong sure purpose

that will structure my confusion and bring meaning in my chaos.


I look at myself in this waiting moment — What kind of person am I?

The questions persist:


What am I doing with my life? What are the motives that order my days?

Where am I trying to go? Where do I put the emphasis and where are my values focused? To what end do I make my sacrifices? Or do I make any?


Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life? Or perhaps, what do I hate most in life and to what am I true? Or what do I want to be true?

While Thurman continues to speak for several more minutes, this opening section of Meditations of the Heart allowed me to get away from the endless traffic and bring meaning to chaos. I no longer felt overwhelmed or pressured to make every NEXT idea an instant reality in my life and ministry.

Instead, I felt very much at peace with the realization that I don’t have to do it all at once and that I can take the time to discern from all of those ideas that I discovered about what is most important for me to do as a husband, father, preacher and follower of Jesus.

I’m continuing to figure it out. I’m asking questions in the waiting as opposed to producing answers. My mind and heart are hungering and thirsting for the still moment.

And that feels so much better than being over-full.

Andy photoAndy Acton is the associate pastor for High School Youth and Mission & Outreach at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church in Duluth, GA where he has served since 2008. He is the husband to the amazing Elizabeth, and father of two hilarious kids, Katie and Davis. You can read more of his writings and sermons on his blog Georgia Preacher: Musings On Life, Ministry and Culture from a Presbyterian Pastor Livin’ in the Peach State at