Tag Archives: spiritual direction

Spiritual Life? : How does anyone have time for one?  

In 2006, life in our church was rich. I started collecting questions that became the launchpads for messages. 

The “frequently asked question” for the evening is: How does anyone have time for a spiritual life? You know these questions come in as a result of what various cells have been exploring over the year. This is a very practical question, so I am glad to take a stab at it. I hope you’ll be thinking along with me as I speak. The fact is, you are having time for a spiritual life right now. Make the most of it. Have your spiritual life.

Normal vs. spiritual life?

70% from Rotten Tomatoes, from 1996.
  1. Before I try to get practical, I want to bring up one of the main problems with having time for a spiritual life. It is the notion that there is a “normal” life and then there is a “spiritual” life. The way most of us think, there is a split between real or normal life and spiritual life.

For the most part, this might be just a figure of speech – we talk about the sporting life. We ask “How’s your love life?” and “How is family life?” – and all we mean is how is the part of our lives under discussion. But it can go further with our faith. Somehow faith got pushed into our private lives and out of our everyday lives. Jesus became a part of our leisure time and not a part of our work life or civic life.

So, for instance, when President Bush was asked how faith might shape policy in the presidential debates in October of 2004. He answered from the classic evangelical viewpoint, I think. He said:

My faith plays a big part in my life. I pray a lot. I do. My faith is very personal. …I’ve received calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, well, how do you know? I said, I just feel it.

My faith is a big part of my life. It is very personal. Prayer delivers things to my life. I don’t know what the president thinks, really. But a lot of people have a personal faith, a “spiritual life” that never coincides with their regular life.

So when someone asks, “How do I find time for a spiritual life?” It must mean two things, at least.

  • “Normal” life is taking you over and you have no time for other things, like whatever is in my personal life.
  • You think you have a life that is not “spiritual” and you want to develop the one that is.

I have to question the question. I’m not sure it is helpful to talk about our “spiritual lives” too much. As far as the people in the Bible go, there is only one life. There is a spiritual life in relation to God or there is existence plummeting toward no life. You’re alive or as good as dead.

  • John 6:63 — The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.
  • Romans 8:11 — And if the  Spirit  of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his  Spirit , who lives in you.
  • Galatians 2:20 — The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me

If you follow Jesus — if you serve/belong to/believe in Jesus — you have a renewed spiritual life. You have been given life. The capacity you had for spirituality in you has been activated and is developing. You are filling up with life. It is not like you are the owner of your life and you are managing sectors of it trying to keep everything in balance or keeping the plates spinning. The life you have, you received from God through the work of Jesus. You were dead, but back in relation to God, you are alive.

in 2006 Branson pledged $3B to develop alternative fuel sources.

I don’t have time?

  1. The second big problem with finding time to actually be consciously related to God and exercising our new life, putting on this new self, living in our eternity is how we have come to view time.

If all you have is this life then every second counts. (“I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” the gospel of Clairol taught us). We are generally painfully aware that we cannot get back the seconds that have passed (“Nothing is further away than a minute ago”). Since we have most of our physical needs met these days, and many of us no longer fret about how much money we don’t have, now it is all about time. We weigh it out all day; we consider what our time is worth and whether we are spending it wisely.

  • Spending it wisely could mean we spend it all frantically making the most of it to get what we want – so we will have more experiences or will earn more leisure time or afford more retirement time.
  • Or it could mean we avoid spending any of it on work so we can be free from time constraints and get all our time up front before I have spent it all on loveless toil.

We are always making a time deal.

So Joshua and I know that between May 15 and October 15 or so, every weekend is going to feel precious to most of us, because we only get so many sunshiney Saturdays a year. People are weighing out what is more worth it, time spent on the spiritual life or time spent on vacation.

So when someone asks, “How do I find time for a spiritual life?” I think they might also be asking, “Is this going to be worth it?”

For the people in the Bible, they are not so conscious of the value of all their moments, because they actually think they are eternal and they know any moment has value because they, themselves, are valued. They still want to make the most of their days on earth, but they don’t have such a sense of hoarding a scarce resource.

  • John 6:27 — Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you
  • Colossians 3:1-3 — Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

The idea is that we need to learn a new way to invest our time, not in the fear of scarcity, but generously, joyfully, freely being eternal. Depending on our personality styles, we can make the most of the moment and make the most of a decade — whatever we are given — because we are living in an eternal now.

We can help ourselves with the process of being a growing, spiritual person who is alive to God and comfortable in their own reality with him by doing very practical things. It is not just about knowing right things and changing your mind, although I don’t see how any transformation happens without that; it is also about considering how you feel, how you are built psychologically and mostly, doing something with your body.

Let me answer this question.

How can I learn to use my time well as a person who lives in the Spirit?

I want to give you some verses from Psalm 119, since we are letting the Psalms guide us in different ways this summer. Psalm 119 is all about feeling the challenges of seeking God and living a life in relation to God in a difficult world.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Use the time you have.

Don’t be outside the time you are experiencing. A lot of us wait for something to happen sometime, instead of happening in the time we are in. I am sure that just last week some people missed a great time to learn and praise: they were angry, were on drugs, were analyzing, were daydreaming. Then they wonder why they don’t have time for their “spiritual pursuits.” Be as present to God as you can right now.

Psalm 119:59-60
I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes.
I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands.

There is no replacement for honoring the importance of every minute, the meaning inherent in it. Jesus calls us to live. The Psalmist is having the same conviction. “I’m considering. I’m turning. I hasten to obey, to participate in my God-given time.”

  • Listen for God in your cell.
  • Prepare for worship
  • Give yourself a reminder phrase before you enter into a distracting situation – “Why am I here? I am here to worship. I am here to hear you. I am here to rest. I am here to love.” Keep centering on it, so you don’t get your time stolen. Hold on to your time like it was your purse in a threatening situation.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Discipline your time

Time is like a river – build dams and levees that slow it down. Time is like a child, it needs to be trained. Time is like a bronco, you either tame it, it stomps you, or it jumps the fence and runs away. A schedule can get flabby and need to go to the gym.

Psalm 119:147,164
I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.
Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.

The people who get to know God are not all smarter. They do things. Scott Peck said the original sin was probably laziness. Just doing whatever, just going with what is going, not bothering to consider, to imagine, to step out of the regular rut leaves us out of touch with God. The psalmist is making the effort. He gets up before dawn to pray. He’s got a seven times a day discipline he is using.

You might like to start big with the schedule form on your seat. It could help discipline all the time in the week.

  • Make a copy and write down what you do in a week. That way you can see what you really do. As you do this you’ll notice that you will already be freeing yourself to makes changes and decisions. “Do I REALLY want to watch 3 hours of HBO a day? Did I really play Halo that long? Can I afford that commute – am I using the time on the train?” Etc.
  • Make a list of things you want in your week. “If I want to be a person who is living in the Spirit, what do I need to do?”
  • Put them on the sheet and try to meet your goals.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Be incremental. Accrue

I think no time spent pursuing God is wasted. The actions build up. They accrue and begin compounding interest — so do something. Something is better than nothing. Do some little thing so you can get to a bigger thing. It is all too easy to let the day be so troubled that we never get to resting with God or praying, or caring for our inner journey – or even travel on it! It is also easy to see where we ought to be on the journey and be so ashamed or so overwhelmed that we don’t even take a step. Do something. Like the kid who gave his bread and fish, Jesus can multiply what he is given, and in the giving we are grown, too.

Psalm 119:143
Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands are my delight.

The psalmist has problems, too. But he’s delighting in what Good has given him.

  • When you are listening to me, be determined to get one thing from all this time that is for you. Then make a goal to act on it in some way, “I am going to complete that schedule thingy this Thursday night when I normally would watch America’s Got Talent.” Something like that.
  • Whenever you read the news, a book, or the Bible, write down a little goal for the day that will be a little step you can take to apply what you receive. When you are with your mentor, do whatever you felt moved to do as quickly as possible. When you are alone with God take your gut reactions seriously, unless that usually messes you up, and do what you are moved to do. You usually don’t have to spend a lot of time planning. You usually are given what you are already able to do. Do what you can. Don’t wait.
  • If you have a big goal that feels too big to start, like 20 minutes of contemplative prayer twice a day, maybe you need to be incremental. Do five minutes a day for a week.
  • Maybe you can manage to kick start some new direction by doing something dramatic – take a day retreat by yourself with God (I have loads of places you can go; some are very cheap). Take a pilgrimage to someplace instead of your usual weekender. If you are going to NY, say you are going to see St. John Divine and spend two hours there – then do whatever else you wanted to do. Get your mate or your friend to help, if you work well that way – say “We will begin the day with prayer each Wednesday from now until October.”

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Read meditatively.

Reading gives time. If you can’t read, learn to read. If you have ADD, struggle through the reading process once in a while. Don’t avoid reading very slow and listening between the lines. It is not an accident that the word of God is in a book, too. It helps us to meditate.

Psalm 119:130
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple.

The process of meditation is about something unfolding, like the petals of a flower grows and blooms. It takes time. The process of understanding words and relating to the people who wrote them and relating God who is always thinking along with us is a basic way to use time well for spiritual development. Better than TV, tapes, iPods, whatever.

  • Carry a book with you. We get a lot of demands on our time so we need to be ready when we get a moment: on the bus, in line, on hold, at the café before the friend comes. It might be a good thing for you to do at this stage of your life. You might also need to stop reading and listen to what you’ve already heard.
  • For a lot of us, meditatively reading — reading to listen to God and not just get information, is something of a lost art. Plan an hour for it that you normally give to media. Try a goal of ten pages a day. I have all sorts of suggestions in your program.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Get direction

It is a great, helpful luxury to sit down with a caring someone and listen for God as they listen for God in you. That is time well spent. In some sense I think of it as expanded time, a lot of goodness poured into a small space of time.

Psalm 119:63
I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts.

The psalmist feels a spiritual camaraderie with everyone who reveres God. Those kind of friends are cultivated by anyone who wants to have a life in the Spirit. There is probably nothing more dangerous than finding yourself in love with people who fritter your time.

  • Visit your therapist – most are worth the money.
  • Take a class – even one at Temple or Penn could be a time to get a break to listen to the depths of your mind and heart.
  • Find a spiritual director – these are not easy to get. You friend or your cell leader may be a good person for now.
  • It would be nice if we took each other seriously to receive the great gifts that are all around us, rather than holding out for some saint someday.

I think my favorite verse from the very long Psalm 119, must be this one:

I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.

The many people who asked, “How can I find time for a spiritual life?” were probably tired and frustrated. They are running in the path of the world’s commands and time is running out! They are yearning and trying, but it isn’t happening as well or as fast as they want. I hope I have stirred up some new possibilities or at least got what you already had installed activated. One of my main points though was that you don’t need to tack on a demanding spiritual life to your already full normal life. You have one life and it is eternal. God has laid out a lot of ways to run free in it. Don’t be afraid to try them. Your are important and your time makes a difference.

What do you want to add? Some of you may have a lot of good answers to this question too. Let’s here answers or questions and talk back.

Group meditation: A development story

The men have jumped into our newly-formed spiritual direction group. Month by month our capacity to listen to God with and for each other is growing. We are encouraged and challenged. We are also learning we are as different in character as we are together in purpose, and that seems just right.

Chronos and Kairos

Some of us are more tuned into linear or “chronos” time. (Chronos and Kairos in Greek Thought). If you are an engineer or scientist of some kind, you’re probably prone to emphasizing sequential, goal-oriented and, perhaps, scarce or developing time — maybe you are even wearing a chronometer! Your orientation to time might be as it is because you are more attuned to left brain processes, along with much of the Eurocentric world (Left and Right Brain Thinking). I’m not sure this always follows, but maybe you will be more aligned with an “apophatic” approach to meditation (Apophatic and Kataphatic Meditation). I told the group I would be in big trouble if I were not linked with people who lean this way, since I pretty much lean the other direction.

Let’s not make an “either/or” distinction, here. But the “other direction” is being more tuned into “kairos” time. I think fewer people “land” here these days (pun intended). The disposition seems out-of-date. Not too many of us are farmers, but if you are, you probably tune into the seasons and see things according seeds sprouting and crops ripening “when the time is right.” Like a farmer, you may feel an immediacy about time, like “right now,” like “It rained last night and it is the right time to plow.” You might have expectations of time based on intuition or your experience. You might orient this way because you are more attuned to right brain processes. Maybe you are more of an artist, an ardent listener, or a seeker of timeless things. Or maybe you are searching like the mother in Everything, Everywhere, All at OnceI don’t agree meaninglessness is at the heart of the universe like that movie does, but I respect their right brain pursuits. I’m not sure this always follows, but if you’re built in this way, you might have more of a “kataphatic” approach to meditation.

Le prophète Isaïe — Marc Chagall (1968)

It started with a story

All those thoughts and links above come from the story I now carry about how our group gathered. I enjoyed listening to the interplay of all those dispositions as we prayed, sang, and took each other seriously. Several of us offered a story about a loss we had commonly experienced. We were in varying degrees of being unsettled or moving on. It was moving to share such a profound subject with someone, in which our deepest loves and suffering were surfacing.

I won’t tell you the substance of our dialogue, of course. But one of us named what they were doing to themselves as a “purity test.” This jogged another person to describe a scene in the Bible in which God purified someone’s mouth with a live coal during a vision in the Temple (later noted as Isaiah 6). This caught my attention because I had just that day been singing along with an old song on YouTube about that scene:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said,

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The [doorposts] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Of course Isaiah’s story has been repeated for centuries and music has been written for the angel’s to sing! If we have not had such an experience ourselves, yet, we long to!

Left brain folks focused on the prophet’s lips

Everyone had their own way to enter into our mutual discernment.

Some were more “left-brained.” If you have a linear mindset, which is characteristic of left-hemisphere processes, then what is past is lost and what is not yet realized can be disappointing in that you don’t have what you need.

The specificity and constraints of language are instigated in the left brain, so it is no wonder some people noticed and were most were moved by which words were spoken in the story above: “Woe is me, I am lost,” and then by the Lord speaking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The left brain is where wild thoughts go to be tamed and abstractions go to become projects.

We were listening together, and some people leaned more into apophatic mediation. It is a wordless and imageless way. As you become empty of what distracts or upsets you (usually the energies of left-brained processing), you become one with the love of God you seek. When teachers help us to do this, they often start by helping us find a centering word or phrase that supersedes the din of our inner dialogue and the many voices that lead us to judge ourselves and which assign us self-improvement projects. That kind of meditation helps us stop our endless self-examination and self-centeredness (An example from Martin Laird).

Right brain folks having their own revelation

Others were more “right-brained.” If you tend to experience the world with your heart and senses first, your instinct is to seek the thin places and turn into them.

The experience of the prophet in the temple was eternal; it has that sense of “kairos” even if you just read it for the first time a minute ago. It happened in God’s time, so much so, it feels fresh to people reading about it 3000 years later. It is a promise, not just history. As our group met, we made a thin place and we entered into that eternal now. Our thin place experiences do and should have a staying power like Isaiah’s. I was very happy to be reminded that. Even though I felt the loss of my previous spiritual experience, it was good to accept how amazing it was for the season it lasted. Whatever touched eternity in it could not be lost. What is gone is still beautiful in kairos time; it flowered in is season.

As we were listening together, some people leaned more into kataphatic meditation. It is a image-rich way to pray. As you connect with the eternity of this present moment, you become united with the Creator in creation. The experience of God’s grace grounds you in the One who was and is and is to come. When teachers help us do this, they often start with a story or a metaphor, not a principle or a manual. Visual, musical, or literary art, a statue, a tree, a sunset, etc. are all aids (like the icon, below) all help us connect. Jesus is the best example of this kind of mentoring. He leads us to know God beyond our arguments for or against such knowing. He helps us to become an “I am” in love with “I am” (An example like Ignatius of Loyola).

Both/and “Trinity” by Andrei Rublev (ca. 1411). Click for info.

We are both/and beings

Obviously, we all have left and right hemispheres to our brains, barring some catastrophe. But if you are an American or under 35, you are probably more oriented to the left brain.  One of the reasons we love the character Data so much in Star Trek: Picard is because he is succeeding in developing his right brain, too; he is becoming fully human, like we want to be.

By nature, we are both/and beings, right and left, spirit and material, time-bound and timeless. If we live in love, we can be a big help to each other as we find our own way into wholeness. We often see ourselves best when someone who loves us sees us. When we seek God together, we rarely end up oriented the direction we began. Our various starting points often combine to lead to a startling and encouraging new place.

In our group the other night a deeply felt problem, a focus on woe and a snippet from a story about a vision left me moved to turn again today and find joy in the presence of God in me and around me. I hope my story helps you find the hope in your own.

Find your contemplation where you can

I have enjoyed getting to know spiritual direction students and teachers over the past semester. My cohort is a diverse, sincere bunch of people that always remind me of God’s goodness and humanity’s capacity for compassion and hope.

There is only one thing about my new group of friends that is funny. Many of them remind me a lot of the old SNL skits about NPR.

Sometimes that NPR voice is such a wonder, like on my favorite WHYY voice, Jennifer Lynn. Other times the special character of that voice makes me wonder if the sincerity of it is just another act of branding. With everything on ZOOM now, a lot of us now have ring lights and new microphones. And I think a lot of us have started to wonder how to act on screen, including how to sound.

What does the voice mean, now?  My spiritual direction teachers and many of their students seem to have learned to speak with an NPR voice. Is that a thing, or is it just me? I know I’ve been tagged with a “Mr. Rogers” voice, so maybe I learned it a long time ago.

Voice command

Our voice is a powerful instrument. We had four children before the oldest turned 4. I developed their attention to my voice as a high priority, especially my command voice: “Do not step off that curb!” and “Let go of your brother’s neck, now!” Since we were often in a church meeting, I could turn the command volume down very low, “Give me that marker!”

Humanity continues to prove it is hell-bent on emulating the perceived power of God  through its own control and manipulation. This is kind of a leap, but I think the medium of radio does its control and manipulation via voice command. As my children tell me I did, I think NPR commands with an iron fist in a velvet glove. By this time, many of us fans can seem very empathetic and nonthreatening while advancing the same old domination.

I bring this up because my teachers, and most of the authors they suggest, basically move with Eurocentric, privileged assumptions that leak out as “best practices” for spiritual formation and direction. There is usually a candle. There is often Taize music (from France) or classical music (based in Europe), there is aloneness and silence, which, in themselves, are often hard-to-find luxuries. There is often a call to “let go,” which is hard to do if your are barely hanging on. There are often calls to “submit” or “surrender” since they are in charge and conquering something by nature. And when they speak it could be right out of NPR.

I have spent decades perfecting all the spiritual practices practices that come with the dominant culture – and to a good end. I think my teachers last semester were great. Candles, Taize, silence in solitude, and submission are all elemental to my spiritual practice.

reaching for the edge of contemplation

There is another side

I also have enjoyed the luxury of getting to know other ways to contemplate contributed by the nondominant cultures around me. Fortunately for me, my parents came from the U.S. underclass and felt blessed to have clawed themselves into the lower middle class. So when I brought classical music home from college as the first to attend one, it did not go over well. I was called on to let go of the pride of thinking I was better than someone else, rather than called on to let go of the assumption I was better than most of the world, like most world-dominating Americans assume.

Many people from nondominant cultures are invited into contemplation by Eurocentric people and the “hospitality offered may be more stifling than respiting, more harm than blessing…The ways that marginalized groups answer the question of who God is needs to be contemplated in a more authentic way than the ‘average’ contemporary expression of spirituality might expect” (Ruth Takiko West*). So true. Besides, members of the so-called “dominant culture” are also very diverse, so forcing them into learning the Eurocentric practices as if they are “best practices” could be a mistake. Leaders need a lot of intentional introspection if they hope to alleviate the problem of merely dominating instead of liberating. The image of God does not just reside in people such as oneself.

Your culture is fine, as is mine. But Jesus is transcultural, even though he comes from a culture, in a gender, and is born into a family system. He experienced the dominant culture providing some kind of general order. But he insisted on enacting the liberative, reconciling work of the Spirit by giving preference to the poorer or more distant, as well as those yet to be included.

The ever-accepting Savior calls us into a mutually accepting relationship with Him and everyone else. Jesus is the Spirit in a body, the body of Christ is the Spirit making all of us into family: the body of Christ. This works out in all cultures. One does not need to look outside of one’s culture or outside of oneself to meet God. Henri Nouwen said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence” (see Spiritual Direction).

The presence of the Spirit transcends and infuses culture

We don’t need to act one way or another to develop intimacy with God, and though Jesus came one way, the Spirit of God with which he graced us is as multifaceted as the Creator. If God speaks to you in an NPR voice, wonderful; it is a sweet voice. But it can be a dominating voice, especially when white teachers unwittingly erase other sounds by making it prescriptive.

The rich experience of Black Americans, even those who understand Taize, Thomas Merton, and such, is often run over by the soft tones of people in charge, even though they have a rich tradition of their own that might be even better. James Cone writes, “The spirituals were a ritualization of God in song. They are not documents for philosophy; they are material for worship and praise for the One who had continued to be present with black humanity despite European insanity” (in The Spirituals and the Blues). Solitude in silence is to be treasured but contemplation is bigger. It is purpose, intention and deep consideration. As such it comes in many forms in as many cultures. Takiko West describes the Black experience in community where contemplation is exercised in the singing and the hearing of songs like the spirituals:

The presence of God is evidenced by the movement of the Spirit that causes one to jump to their feet, hands thrown up in the air when the soloist hits that one note and sustains it as if he/she needed to make sure the sound would reach heaven. It is within that moment that there is communal solidarity around the awareness of God’s grace.*

Cone writes, “The certain fact is always that God is present with them and trouble will not have the last word.”

I’ve had the privilege of being invited into this kind of contemplation in cultures other than my own all over the world. I have a feel for NPR’s more Eurocentric contemplation and I have also been blessed by Aretha Franklin’s. In the following video from Franklin’s 1972 live album, Amazing Grace, she manages to lead the moment of contemplation in a setting of a live recording. In it she bridges the societal divides, as she was so good at, by taking a Carol King song and combining it with a familiar gospel tune, in a South LA church. The album is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Aretha Franklin demonstrates how the nondominant find their place in the culture and how they keep a hold of their dignity and affirm their identity as the beloved.  The contemplative scene she leads is just as useful as the singular, quiet, secure-that-your-body-will-be-there-when-you-get-back-to-it, Eurocentric contemplation. We don’t need to choose. There is one body, one faith, one Lord. No one is excluded.

* From her essay in Kaleidescope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction. Ineda P. Adesanya, editor.

Just listen: We hear love better than words

The book of Job in the Old Testament is the story of a man who lost almost everything – his children, his house, his possessions and his health. Early in the book, we read about three friends who came to support him. If you re-imagine the scene, it could be a small cell group, or a spiritual direction group or our pastors’ weekly meeting. Any one of us might be Job at a given time, and any one of us might be one of his friends struggling to help – and failing.

Before we get to the failing, notice what the friends did right. They were intentional. They went to some effort just to show up. They managed to sit with Job for seven days and seven nights, without saying a word (Job 2:13). Some commentators say they were just respectfully “sitting shiva” in mourning for Job’s loss. Others see those silent days as an amazing act of restraint that most of us would have interrupted in some way, like, “I know I shouldn’t be talking, but let me just say…” Regardless, these are good friends coming alongside their friend in his distress.

Job's friends listen
Job on his dung hill

Eliphaz: “Listen. Here is what I think”

Eliphaz was the first friend who spoke after the seven days. “If one ventures a word with you,” he said to Job, “will you be offended? / But who can keep from speaking?” He apparently had been given enough time to think and could no longer contain himself. He goes on to “comfort” Job with his observations, which he is sure will relieve his suffering.

  • As I have seen… (Job 4:8)
  • Now a word came…to me…(Job 4:12)
  • I have seen…(Job 5:3)
  • As for me, I would…(Job 5:8)

He capped it off with “See, we have searched this out, it is true / Hear, and know it for yourself” (Job 5:27). In other words, “Here is our message. Apply what we think to your situation.” Sounds a bit like a sermon, both formal and informal.

Last week I had a reason to talk to almost all our staff in the course of a few hours about a particular project I was concerned about. Maybe I was not looking like I was sitting on a dung-heap enough, but almost everyone spoke from their own experience to solve my problem and a couple actually argued about what I said before they even understood where I was coming from. There was much truth in what they told me, but their comments didn’t always speak to where I was at the time. It was an educational couple of hours, since I am often unrestrained myself, when among my intimates, and offer my perspective on someone else’s experience before it is asked or required. Listening long enough to respond well is quite an art form!

Bildad: “What did you do to deserve this?”

It is possible that Bildad blew any chance he had to be helpful as soon as he opened his mouth. “How long will you say such things? / Your words are a blustering wind” (Job 8:2). It is never great to be blamed for your problems. Bildad was sure that if Job shaped up, God would relent and reward him: “If you are pure and upright, / surely then [God] will rouse himself for you / and restore your rightful place” (Job 8:6).

Most of us probably don’t come right out and say such things, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we looked over someone’s sufferings and counted the many ways they are to blame for them. If only they hadn’t done something or would get busy and do something else, all would be well. We’re all set up for such a reaction, since most of us feel totally responsible to avoid pain and have all sorts of strategies to do just that. We apply our strategies, no matter what they cost us!

If we hope to actually listen to someone, we need to start with compassion, not judgment (and that includes listening to our own inner dialogue!). We must acknowledge both the pain and mystery of human suffering. And we must support people as they seek to believe there is some grace in the midst of their trouble. “My grace,” God said, ‘is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is so hard for anyone to hear that, we may need to sit a long time with them. We certainly don’t want to derail the process with condemnation – exercising ours or solidifying theirs.

In a group session I recall, a man was particularly angry and some members were becoming tired of him lashing out. He even criticized them for being uncaring while they were, in fact, caring for him at that very moment! He eventually talked about the disrespect he felt. He talked long enough to discover that he had always carried this feeling and it came from a deep, family-rooted place. His problems were not solved that day, but they were not heightened by getting blamed back when he blamed. He had friends who would listen.

Zophar: “Cheer up, I can tell you what God wants”

Job’s third friend continues on the track laid out by the others. He pontificates on the mysteries of God and then says if Job devotes himself to God he will soon forget his troubles: “Your life will be brighter than noonday; / its darkness will be like the morning” (Job 11:17). In other words, “I know what God is thinking, and I predict that if you think like me, things will improve.”

A long time ago, a great number of Christians gave up following Jesus for getting Christianity right. Part of the “rightness” was to never suffer, since, the logic goes, if you are suffering, you must not be right, or right with God. When I lived in the homeland of such “entire sanctification” thinking, I would greet my bishop with “How are you today?” And he would invariably say, “I’m on top of the world.” Now that I am as old as he was then, I find that even harder to believe, since he must have at least awakened with a few aches and pains. But he was living a Zophar life, denying his troubles and presenting a faithful life brighter than noonday.

Once we were in a meeting together and I did not resist questioning this theology, since I could not get Jesus, the Suffering Servant, out of my mind. One fellow pastor was quite upset at my lack of orthodoxy. As I kept arguing my point (probably not too gently) he got angrier and louder. I finally said, “You are angry, aren’t you?” He got my point, but I did not get his friendship. Arguing someone out of their spiritual bypass rarely works. Like God, we need to stick with them in their suffering, supporting the, and perhaps finding a way to challenge them, until they get over their impossible task of being on top of the world.

Circle up to listen

Just listen!

Job finally got fed up with his friends. “All of you are worthless physicians. / If you would only keep silent, / that would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5) In chapter 21 he says, “Listen carefully to my words; / let this be the consolation you give me.”

Don’t we all feel like this quite often? We will ask when we need answers. Most of us will ask when we want help. But before we get to either of those places, we mostly want someone to listen to us. Being heard, even more, understood, is like a balm for our wounds. Listening breeds trust and intimacy.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I had a spiritual director who was not quite my father’s age, but he was old enough to feel parental. He listened to a lot of my father issues. I can still remember the few times he offered some advice on how I could address them. But I was never ready to take his advice and it would not have been good to do so; I knew that. But mostly he listened; even more, he was just there as a fatherly figure who cared about me. His listening presence was what I really needed.

“Just listen! When you’re tired of listening, listen deeper.” At least that is what I need to keep telling myself. I make the mistakes of all of Job’s friends, even when I feel like Job himself! We all have a lot to learn about grace, and how the silent attentiveness of God is the basis of most of the healing we need. God is best known in love, the words can come later.

A spiritual midwife: God’s helpers in birthing new life

People were clamoring for spiritual direction! One of the best things I heard throughout all the dialogue of our mapping process last year was the persistent request for more help to grow in grace. We need to nurture further gifted people in the body who direct us. We need to pay attention to the people and resources we have already been given. We want to provide everyone with good opportunities to go deep. It will take more spiritual midwives — men or women who can help with the spiritual birthing process. We need them, whoever they might be.

Shiprah and Puah
Shiprah and Puah

We need clever and brave midwives like Shiprah and Puah, the forerunners of good midwives everywhere. Here is their story:

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
                 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
                So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own. — Exodus 1:15-21

Shiprah and Puah! Why haven’t any of our most recent female children been named after these great figures in Bible history? Is it because Moses gets most of the airtime in the Exodus story and these women only a few lines, so they are easily forgotten? Is it because our family story is written by and about men, primarily? Probably both.

Even though it is a male-dominated story, a very basic image manages to push its way to the surface quite often: narratives of  pregnancy and birth, stories of new life that redirect and transform.

God the midwife

Pivotal women in the Old Testament story set the stage for THE birth story. Luke’s sensitive telling makes the incarnation vivid. Mary asks the angel “How can this be?” Nicodemus asks Jesus when he is called to be born again “How can this be?”

It can be because God himself is the midwife. Psalm 22 spells it out as we are led to pray:

You brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God. — Psalm 22:9-10

When we see God pictured like this, it should dawn on us, like Margaret Guenther says, “that the midwife helps new life into being and protects it; even more than the mother, she is the tender guardian of its safety…Shiprah and Puah may well stand as an icon, the foremothers of all midwives, but behind them is another guardian of new life. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord is my midwife, I shall be kept safe” (Holy Listening p. 84).

We need spiritual midwives

We need more directors who are like midwives for new birth: present to another in a time of vulnerability, working in areas that are deep and intimate, helping a birthing person to greater self-knowledge, assisting at a natural event. A spiritual midwife, like one who stays with a woman through a natural birth, sees what the birthgiver can’t see, knows the signs of transition, witnesses the crowning of newness. She or he recognizes the time to confront, the time to encourage and knows how to do both. Our goal for 2013 is to provide a roadmap for spiritual direction that helps people understand and exercise their options for growing in grace.

We are already blessed with people among us who have received training in spiritual direction. But we don’t need to wait to get on their schedule. We don’t need to go to the “spiritual birthing center” to give spiritual birth, per se. We have an assortment of ways we might meet the need. Our cells are hotbeds of spiritual direction, if one is listening and not devaluing. Our pastors are good directors, and getting better, as are our Cell Leader Coordinators. But one doesn’t need to wait for a one-on-one, you can access what is being taught in our meetings, dive into the pastors’ book recommendations, make a friend who is consciously a spiritual friend, or be involved in the day retreats of spiritual direction. We plan a whole brochure on the topic.

We can put Shiprah and Puah on the front of the brochure, but it won’t do much good unless people who are talking about needing direction receive the gifts given. We need directors, but we also need people who really want to be directed. It is often said that the person seeking to find direction finds a guide. A person who can’t be directed often complains they are without guidance.

{Update: see our further recommendations on The Way of Jesus site]

Enhanced by Zemanta