Word of the Week

tumblr_inline_mluuj4tJ9L1qz4rgpAs a pastor, I am often asked by people: "How do I know when to________?"

These are often personal questions that I cannot answer. But what I do have is this: the gift of listening.

Spiritual direction is the ancient practice we have in the church for listening alongside another person.

If you aren't familiar with the term, the Catholic church birthed this practice. Dating back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the 3rd century, folks would leave the rush and demands of their lives in the cities seeking out wisdom from those who lived in the deserts of Egypt. At this time, spiritual direction became a gift of deep listening for when many where searching for answers in their lives.

But over the years, spiritual direction is no longer not just for Catholics. Protestants began engaging it and not just clergy. Lay people received training. Now, spiritual direction is a practice found within communities of all faiths.

The simplest way I know how to explain spiritual direction is this: when you meet with a spiritual director, it might feel like therapy at first (because you go at a set time, sit in a chair often across from the person and talk or these days often on Zoom) but it's more like just having a one-on-one conversation with a pastor or a friend who is really wise.

The spiritual director has training to help you hear what might be "underneath" what you offer, notices themes in your stories and always brings the conversation back around to "Where is God?" in your life.

The goal for a spiritual direction session is for the directee to walk away from the conversation with a deeper sense of knowing the Divine, manifested in the situations of their lives.

It's one way to sit with the "How do I know when to ____" questions.

A couple of years ago, I took a week-long course in spiritual direction at the Chaplaincy Institute: An Interfaith Seminary and Community in Berkeley, CA.

I knew the work of pastor and spiritual director held deep bonds. I wanted to become a better listener. And what an amazing week it was!

During one session of the training, Rev. John Mabry posted the question to the class, "How do you know when to speak up and when to be quiet?"

He read I Samuel 3, the call story of Samuel then asked: "When Samuel was a young boy in the temple," he asked us, "How did he know God spoke to him?"

"Three times."

Someone in the class added, "On the 3rd time that Samuel heard what he thought was a strange voice, Eli told Samuel to answer the voice by saying, 'Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.'"

Then, Rev. Mabry suggested this as a model for our work as spiritual directors/ pastors.

When we get the urge to speak that won't go away and won't go away and then really won't go away, THEN we know we cannot be silent.

I've loved this metaphor not only for listening but for so many other aspects of life.

I think about phone calls I make in this way.

I think about notes I write this way.

I even think about shopping this way.

By asking myself the same questions for the 2nd and then the 3rd time and being really sure, the self-involved  or non important rubbish goes away.

And I also think about writing this way. So I must confess, I've had this particular blog on my mind for a while now. So today I sat down to write it. It was what I knew I needed to do today.

P.S. If you're interested in finding a spiritual director, send me an email or go to the Spiritual Directors International website's database.  I highly recommend spiritual direction. I've had one for over 15 years and find it so good for my soul. You can find one in your area too. 

As I'm getting back in the swing of the more structured pastoral life again, I am beginning to engage in conversations with folks that sound a lot like this:

"How do I know God's will for my life?" or "How can I know what God wants me to do?" 

When I get asked questions like this, I usually feel inadequate (not because I didn't go to seminary or take lots of pastoral care classes) but because it is as if the questioner is asking me to play the role of God in their life, telling them what they are to do as they face difficult decisions.

At heart, I see the role of a pastor to be that like a spiritual director, an intentional relationship between a people and one called out to lead of figuring out what it means to find the presence of God in community.  And so, as a pastor I still serve in the role of learner as much as I do a teacher. Thus, for me to give a specific answer to "This is what God wants from you" with complete authority can often be off base and misstated. One of my favorite prayers from Thomas Merton speaks of the fact that as much as we think we are doing God's will, we may not be.

So, if even pastor types can not speak definitively for God with absolute certainty, then how can we know? How can we discern God's steps for us when we reach junctures of big decisions?

I would have once answered this question by saying large amounts of time need to be offered up to God sitting quietly in the woods or taking residence in prayer closets. I would have said that if you diligently search the scriptures, an answer from the pages would come. Or, I would have said that if the decision leads to more folks coming to know of Christ, then of course it was the right one (can you tell I used to be an evangelical?).

But, as I've grown in faith, I've come to see a way of discernment that doesn't always have to include words shouted from the heavens with my name in them or having moments of great epiphany in prayer. It's actually much more messy than this. Sometimes as much as we think we know, we don't. My spiritual director always says meaning is revealed (to which I find frustrating of course).

So from my own experience (which again is just my own experience) this is what I know:

Sometimes, actually often times, discernment for me now looks like the simple practice of putting one step in front of another and seeing what comes. Knowing that as I go down a path, the Spirit can be trusted to show me where I am to be and where red flags are shouting "stay away, go the other direction."

Sometimes discernment comes in a word of a friend that I can't seem to get out of my mind.

Sometimes discernment comes as intuition that I believe from my heart that can't be shaken, no matter what occurs.

Sometimes discernment comes as pieces of a life direction falling together in ways that I know I could never dream up or orchestrate on my own even if I tried.

Though I am often not much help to those who come to me seeking "the answer" to their troubles, hopefully what I can do as a pastor, as a friend, as a wife is to listen, to say what I hear and hope for the Spirit to make clear what needs to rise up and what needs to fall away.

Because after all, this is what doing life together is at its best. For as much as I can be this for fellow travelers on the journey, I need the same folks to do this for me too.

Discernment then looks like me walking alongside you, you walking alongside me with open eyes, attentive feet and ears to hear "This is the way, walk in it."