Spiritual Direction….Gift Not Vocation

About ten years ago I was encouraged by a friend to apply for a new program being offered through our church’s regional office, a spiritual direction training class. It was to be a three-year program. I applied, along with her. She was selected for the class; I was not. Other interests and areas of growth occupied my time for the next decade.

However, in 2014 I was assigned a ministry coach and worked with the coach through phone contacts for over two years. At one point in our coaching, she told me that the spiritual work I was doing was not in her area of expertise. She was a technician assigned to listen, ask questions, and challenge and assist in clarifying ministry goals. She suggested that the work I was doing was more in the way of a deeper spiritual journeying and that I would benefit from a spiritual director. I asked the agency that had assigned the ministry coach for a spiritual director. They did not feel that was necessary or appropriate for me at the time. THEIR COACH told me it was, but they disregarded their own coach’s directive. I disregarded their opinion and sought out a spiritual director about whom I had heard in Bay County, an ordained Episcopal priest. I spent about one hour with the director, sharing from the heart. After I placed the things I was contemplating before her, she said about 3 sentences, one of which provided a bit of a shock that changed the way I viewed some things. She suggested I would benefit from reading a particular book. It was a life changing conversation in that it redirected me toward a fuller, more complete, and biblical insight into the ministry to which I am called than what I had understood.

Fast forward four years……… I counsel women in transition daily. It is a fairly predictable journey………not in the specifics of what one can expect necessarily, as there are generally surprises and unexpected changes in direction that can occur along the way, but in the fact that there are certain mile markers that one can observe to help her understand what is occurring as she passes through the transition and how to respond to it.

It appears to me that I have entered a transition. This transition in which I seem to find myself appears to have begun without my awareness and, as is generally the case, without my having consciously chosen it. Change rarely announces its impending arrival. It simply arrives and you receive it.

If “Change” were a person, how hospitable to Change would you be, knowing that this visitor is going to upend your life, at least for a while, and is likely to leave some degree of disorder that will have to be put right? What is going to be disordered? For how long will one be inconvenienced by Change’s presence? How much freedom to plunder your home and routine is Change to be given? Are you generous enough to accommodate Change’s needs and routine, even if they are at odds with your own comfort level? Are you willing to be inconvenienced by the demands of this guest? What are one’s expectations while the guest is present and when the guest has departed?

We had a foreign exchange student in 1990. A friend of ours was the coordinator for exchange students. She was looking for host families. We were young and adventurous and said “yes.” It would be a good experience for our teen children, we believed. Our student was a delightful young lady from Germany. She was a joy to have in our home and was about the same age as our daughter at the time. There were a few hiccups along the way but we all muddled through and learned together. We have maintained contact through the years and have been privileged to watch her grow into a beautiful and gracious woman, professional, wife, and mother. We had little to do with that, we simply provided a place for her to experience Change in her life for a while and to provide hospitality to Change in our own. And the results were good. We became more aware of and receptive to other cultures, more aware of how our culture is perceived by others, and more appreciative of some things that she found good in our culture, taking them less for granted because of how she helped us see them.

Recently, she and I communicated about her niece who will be old enough next year to launch out into life through her own year abroad. While our family circumstances are considerably different now, I am contemplating whether this is another opportunity to be hospitable to Change. My first thought was, “No, we’re too old and set in our ways to adapt to a 15 year old foreign student’s needs.” But as I have thought about the opportunity, maybe it is just what is needed…..for us and for her. So I am praying about this and talking to a few friends to be sure we’ll have some support if we move forward with this.

So, what is the point of this conversation with myself about Change? For a couple of months I have felt something that I have felt at other times….a sort of generalized discontent that leads to moments of annoyance with myself for realizing there is some discontent and lack of peace present and wondering how I got into such a state? What have I allowed to distract me and pull me out of my place of peace? One thing I have observed over the last 40 years is that sometimes such discontent arises not because of my carelessness or distraction, but because God is about to do something. I have been dealing with my irritability over the distractedness and discontent. And now, this week, it seems, God has dropped some additional pieces into the puzzle that give clues to why I have felt this way for this little while.

As with many things that arise from divine discontent, when there begins to be some resolution of the discontent and clear direction from God, one says, “Really?” “Why?” “Why now?” “Is this necessary?” “How am I to accomplish this?” “Won’t this be a distraction from the tasks already before me?” “How will life be different when this happens?” Then you begin to see the mile markers. Some things have not been productive and need to go. Some things have been slipping in unobserved and now you know that they are present and why. Change slipped in the door unannounced while you were busy in the garden. And since Change has been such a regular guest, he has a key to the door and when you discover him sitting by the fireplace with a cup of coffee, you have a moment’s surprise, then a hearty embrace, and you simply say, “Welcome!”

This past week I saw the mile markers that told me I was already well along in the process with Change this time and had simply been preparing for the arrival of this guest without realizing it. A lot of the work necessary to receive Change had happened while I was trying to figure out why I was experiencing the lack of peace. I know that one of the signs that Change is coming is a generalized lack of peace, a barely perceptible disturbance in the psyche. Change doesn’t send a “Save This Date” post card with an arrival time and announcement of the event…… There is just a faintly familiar, but almost indiscernible wind that begins to blow from a different direction.

I have grown, changed, and become someone different since the last time Change came. But Change itself is different, too, so that we are having to sit down together and catch up, reacquaint ourselves with one another’s doings and adjust to one another’s presence.

What I now can see, too, is that just before that wind of Change began to blow a couple of months ago, there was another visitor…… It came in the form of a weekend visit by a guest pastor who talked to our church about revival. I attended and heard his presentations and appreciated his words and wisdom. I have been feeling that our faith community was ready for and needing a revival. In fact, I had been praying for it and was pleased that there seemed to be a critical mass of others with the same desire. It seemed that it might just be on the horizon for our congregation!

BOOM! Now I see that the satisfaction and joyful anticipation I felt in knowing that revival might be coming to our faith community was really a prelude to a revival coming in me! Also, it appears to me that before revival comes, readiness for it may include divine discontent to unsettle one sufficiently from the complacency and comfort of desiring to stay where one is.

Everyone values and welcomes Revival. Few value and welcome the Change necessary to achieve it.

When I received a Masters Degree in Counseling and Psychology and as I have grown in my faith and in my knowledge of the Word of God I have expected to grow as a Christian counselor, and I have. Fundamentally, I am the kind of counselor that my personality and experience have prepared me to be….directive, positive-focused, action-oriented, inclined toward education of clients about their own selves, and insistent that God has a plan and that relationship with him is the means by which true healing will occur.
Throughout the time I have been counseling, there have been moments in counseling when I realized that something was happening.

While I use Scripture, biblical principles, and prayer with clients, there are times when there is such a Presence in our conversation that the process takes for its direction and words are given that come from a Place that is beyond my knowledge and experience. When it happens it is a holy moment. I cherish it. I am awed by it. I rarely speak of it to others, although I have at times acknowledged that it does happen.

It is not something one can choose or something one can even anticipate. It just happens. As I look back on it there seems to almost be a suspending of the natural laws of time and space. Time goes by without one even realizing how much has passed. Distractions seem to disappear from around us. Because of that it does not lend itself to formal time-restricted appointments. Such spiritual direction encounters are more independent of structure and appear to arise almost spontaneously.

In those moments I know that I am not using my skills as a counselor, but am simply being a vessel of the healing work of the Holy Spirit to someone with a deep and profound need. The need may even be beyond my understanding and skills in the moment and beyond the level of experience, intimacy, and trust with the individual than I would have had occasion to have developed. This past week it was evident in rapid succession with five different situations over a 48-hour period. Although I have known that Presence and the experience of spiritual direction entering into counseling from time to time, I was disquieted by this bombardment. So much so that I felt it necessary to share with my pastor and another Christian counselor what had happened to better understand how this seemed to be tied to the generalized discontent and sensing of Change in the wind that had blown across me for the last two months.

In talking to both of them suddenly the words were clear: “spiritual direction”. I knew this was not counseling in the commonly understood sense. And having sat in a session of spiritual direction myself as the directee, it seemed more like that. My pastor suggested that if felt led to that, there are classes within the regional church I might consider. I laughed and reminded him that they had already given a firm vote of no-confidence on my ministry call and skills not once by several times. That would be unlikely to change.

Then in talking to the other Christian counselor, with whom I have a very close and intimate relationship, spiritual direction was a clear message that came through our conversation, but not that alone. Several other factors that had also loosely been rolling around in my head suddenly dropped into their slots.

So, as I began to contemplate what “spiritual direction” in my personal arena of counseling might look like, she provided a contact with whom to explore the issue and I took to the internet to research.

Spiritual direction means companionship with another person or group through which the Holy Spirit shines with wisdom, encouragement and discernment. Some expect this companionship to be of a professional nature, with a trained, supervised, and perhaps even certified spiritual director. Others see it as spontaneous and gifted, strongly resisting signs of professionalization.
Spiritual direction, or guidance, can happen authentically in a vast variety of forms. These are divided into two major groups:

1.) Formal spiritual direction, and
2.) Informal spiritual direction through companionship.

Formal spiritual direction includes relationships that are explicitly defined as spiritual direction with a clear separation of roles between spiritual director and spiritual directee. Meetings are usually scheduled in advance on a regular basis, and a spiritual directee normally has only one formal director.

Informal spiritual direction companionship is characterized by a lack of structure and role definition. These relationships are not considered exclusive, and most people have several such companionships. These relationships appear to arise organically as a function of the desire of parties to go deeper in the Spirit with God through the accountability and safety of one or more other spiritually mature companions. Meetings tend to be irregular and spontaneous. There is nearly always some atmosphere of mutuality, and each person retains his or her own locus of discernment.  There is no deferring to an authoritative guide other than the knowledge of the Holy Spirit in the process. There is no notion of providing a service, and fees are out of the question. The process is a partnership among those present with the Holy Spirit made possible by availability, desire, and God’s grace in bringing it into being.
( from Gerald May, MD. Excerpted from Shalem News, Volume xxii, No. 1, Winter, 1998, “Varieties Of Spiritual Companionship”)
“Spiritual direction is, in reality, nothing more than a way of leading us to see and obey the real Director — the Holy Spirit hidden in the depths of our soul.” Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, USA

“We define Christian spiritual direction as help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”
(from William A. Barry, SJ and William J. Connolly, SJ, Center for Religous Development, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA)

In making oneself available for spiritual direction there are some things that occur:
– Life-long compassionate listening skills
– Strong community development between participants
– Personal transformation and deeper inter-personal and inner-personal relationships
A spiritual director is not a teacher, coach, mentor, or a counselor but a companion who listens deeply to our sacred story and joins us in connecting our story to God’s eternal story. Time spent with a spiritual director offers a safe space to share our inner most revelations of God’s work in our lives and one’s felt needs. Holy listening invites us to notice where God is moving in our daily experience. “Notice where God is moving in our daily experience” and move into step alongside God there, wherever it takes us. That is similar to how Henry Blackaby describes “experiencing God”, in his widely used and recommended study by that name.

“The goal of Spiritual Direction is the fullness of union with God in Jesus. It is also the same as the goal of Christian life itself: To become ever more completely transformed into the likeness of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit upon our body, soul, and spirit.”
Even as ,I write that last phrase in the paragraph above, excerpted from an online article on spiritual direction, I know that God’s equipping and call on my life is turning some things upside down, like the phrase “body, soul, and spirit.” Spiritual direction is first and foremost about spirit….human spirits gathered together through the binding work of the Holy Spirit toward the goal of mutual care and healing.

Yesterday as i felt the need to talk to my pastor and Christian counseling friend, I think something in me was in a panic at the realization that God was doing something new, calling me to a different kind of spiritual engagement with others than the kind of counseling I have been doing for so long with women in addiction.  I think what went through my head was, “Oh, no.  I don’t think I’m up for another round of classes and certification and an additional role.”  After a somewhat restless night and intermittent prayers, I awoke this morning at peace.  I feel the Lord speaking to me:  “Relax.  You already do this.  You already know all that you need to know.  There is no required qualifying exam.  Just know that I want to be more present with you in counseling by doing it this way instead of through the more structured and directive way you have done it most frequently.  I want to use you in a more intimate way to bring the healing needed by those i send to you.”    The Lord is enlarging my territory, just like he did with Jabez.  Funny, though, I don’t remember asking for that!

The practice of spiritual direction makes even clearer and more potent Christ’s words from Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”