My Journey into Spiritual Direction

I first heard about “spiritual direction” a few years ago. After some encouragement from my brother and sister-in-law, I talked with a friend of theirs who had been a Spiritual Director for years. She gave me some materials to read, and – as my curiosity was aroused – I began to research the concept and practice of Spiritual Direction. Here is what I learned…

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find people seeking spiritual counsel. For example, the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon in order to benefit from his godly wisdom. During His earthly ministry, Jesus provided life-changing spiritual insights to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to His disciples, and to countless others. All of these conversations were designed to help people grow in the spiritual dimensions of life.

Most of us would understand this process of spiritual growth as “discipleship”, but the more commonly used term today is “spiritual formation”, because it emphasizes the process involved in growth and change. Specifically, when I allow Jesus Christ to work in my heart and life, I am involved in the process of spiritual formation. In other words, I am yielding to Jesus so that He can continually form me into a more spiritual person.

Spiritual direction is the practice of helping others move forward in their own personal journey of spiritual formation. Spiritual direction is a new concept in many parts of the church, but it actually is an ancient Christian practice.

In the early church, people sought out hermits in the desert for spiritual counsel. And across the centuries, we find examples of spiritual direction provided by an incredible array of faithful disciples: Irish monks, German Benedictine nuns, Charles de Foucault, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, and others. Today, Spiritual Directors come from many different Christian traditions, but they all share a common desire to help men and women become more fully formed into the image and character of Christ.

As I learned more, the idea of serving God’s family as a Spiritual Director began to take root within me, and I began to see that God had started preparing me for this role many years ago. From my days of leading small groups in college, to teaching elementary-school children and praying with them, to guiding young mothers in MOPS, to serving in women’s ministry, I always have tried to draw other people closer to God. My heart yearns to help men and women…but especially women…develop a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus.

To properly prepare myself for this new ministry, I have embarked on a spiritual and academic training program to become a “certified” Spiritual Director. This program is called “The Journey” and is run by The Leadership Institute in Orange, California []. I will participate in six four-day sessions, as part of a community of about two-dozen people, over 18 months. [I’ve already completed two sessions as noted in earlier posts: “The Journey” (02/12/2010) and “New Life on the Mountain" (05/02/2010)]. Between sessions, I complete homework assignments (reading and papers) and meet with my program mentor. I am learning a great deal from my studies, from the discipline of learning to spend extended time alone with God, and from the other members of the community who are working through this program along with me.

So what will happen once I am certified? I will be able to set up monthly appointments where people can meet personally with me, and my task will be to help them cultivate their personal relationship with Christ. I will provide a safe presence and a listening ear as a guide, so these “directees” can draw closer to Jesus and be able to more readily recognize where and how God is leading them.

This role can be understood in several different ways: a Spiritual Director can be viewed as a spiritual coach, or as a person who provides a specialized form of pastoral counseling. One of my leaders in The Journey describes spiritual direction as “holy listening”, where we strive to listen to the directee’s unfolding story to help discern the movement of God’s Spirit in his or her life. Spiritual direction shares some affinity with counseling, or teaching, or inner healing ministries, but its unique role is to focus on the developing relationship between a person and God.

As part of my own unfolding journey, I have been meeting monthly with a Spiritual Director for almost two years. It has been a rich experience for me, because she lovingly supports me and guides me through prayer, through listening, and gentle counsel. This relationship has been a tremendous blessing, particularly during this amazing season of transition in which I find myself. And when I complete my program and begin to serve others as a Spiritual Director, I look forward to being a conduit of God’s blessing…in the same way that my Director has been a source of God’s blessing to me.

- Julie

Pursuing Meekness

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Matthew 5:5

Jesus, today be within and without me; lowly and meek…yet all powerful.
From an ancient Celtic prayer

As a man, I really dislike the word “meek”.

For me, this word brings up images of “Caspar Milquetoast” (an indecisive and ineffectual character from an old comic strip called The Timid Life – pictured here) or “Walter Mitty” (an insipid, spineless, and hen-pecked husband in a short story by James Thurber). Why would I want to be a doormat like either of these stereotypically weak men?

And yet…Jesus affirms meek people as role models. Why does the Lord promote this quality? Does He want me to be like Caspar or Walter?
I don’t think so, because Jesus wasn’t like these caricatures. So what does He mean when He asks me to be “meek”?

I struggle to answer this question…and then the issue gets even murkier when I read the words from the Celtic prayer above. This prayer invites Jesus to be present in my life with both meekness and power. Is this even possible? My knee-jerk reaction is to answer with a resounding “no”, but then I find myself wondering if those ancient Celts were on to something. After all, Jesus is described in Scripture as meek and mild…and yet He also is firm and unyielding about proclaiming the truth; He takes powerful action against the enemy of our souls.

Perhaps, then, my dislike of the word “meek” stems from a misunderstanding of what it actually means. Perhaps I’ve reacted to its cultural connation, rather than its biblical meaning.

So I looked further in Scripture, and here’s what I discovered. Shortly after Jesus affirms meekness, He says: “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Bruce, live a good and honorable and ethical life so that people will praise God…rather than praise you.”

Wow. What a profoundly counter-cultural message.

This, I believe, is the Lord’s call to meekness and it is not an invitation to wimp out. Jesus wants me to speak and act and live with boldness in pursuit of my calling. He wants me to stand up for truth. But, at the same time, He wants me to always…always…look for ways to give the credit and acclaim and honor to my Father in heaven.

All for Him; not a shred for me. 

Jesus’s words invite me into a lifestyle of active, aggressive humility. I desperately need to hear this message, because the work of ministry is profoundly personal. For example when I study, write, and present a sermon or a lesson, it’s natural to want personal affirmation. To crave it. It’s also hard not to respond to criticism in a personal way. But, by challenging me to pursue a life of “meekness”, Jesus makes it clear that it’s not about me. The success or failure of my service is not (at least in God’s eyes) based on my personality or my popularity. It’s based on my faithfulness.

So – armed with this new insight – I resolve to pursue meekness. Biblical meekness. I will strive to let my light shine and to faithfully carry out whatever good works that God gives me to do. And, at the same time, I will do everything within my power to point people toward the Father so that He gets the credit…because without Him, I could not even begin to do what I do.

- Bruce

New Life on the Mountain

This past week, I went to the Pine Springs Ranch outside Idyllwild for Session 2 of my Spiritual Direction program (Session 1 took place in January). Between each session I read, study, and write papers. Then, during the 4-day gathering on the mountain, I participate with the rest of my group in seminars, devotional Bible studies, and discussions. We also are expected to spend one entire afternoon (5 hours!) alone with God. We call this “Extended Personal Communion” (EPC).

Back in January, I started my EPC by taking a walk…sensing his presence through the beauty of His creation around me. So this past week, I decided to begin my afternoon in just the same way. As I did, I was struck by the incredible contrast between then and now; at the changes that have occurred in me during these past few months.

How different I felt back in January! I remember that I cried during my walk as emotions bubbled to the surface. I was grieving all of the losses of the past 10 years: my parents, my brother, our church family, and our very special fellowship group. I was crying not only for the losses that had already taken place, but also for the fear of further loss. I did not know what God had in store for our future, and I realized that I was not looking forward to further change.

I even found myself questioning God’s love. How could He allow so much to be taken, leaving us feeling stripped and abandoned?

The environment where I was walking seemed to be a perfect metaphor for the way I was feeling. Snow was covering the paths at the retreat center, just as the paths of my future were covered. Why was this? Was it because God wanted to prevent me from walking in the same ruts and patterns of life as before? Was He removing these things because I had depended on them too much?

As I pondered this, I sensed God saying something profound: He was covering the visible road (a future I thought I knew) so that I could step forward in faith on the invisible road (a future I did not know.)

Three months have passed since that walk and my first visit to Pine Springs. And how was the April walk with God different from the January walk? This past week there were no tears; there simply was a sense of celebration and joy in God’s presence. He has helped me to grieve the losses, and lay them to rest, so that I can move forward. I feel a sense of hope and anticipation; of new opportunities and new experiences and new insights into the ways that God wants to work in me and through me. Once again, the very environment served as an appropriate metaphor for what was taking place in my life, because the snow had melted and spring was arriving. New growth was all around me…just as new growth was taking place within me.

At times during this sabbatical I felt as if God had abandoned me. But this time of slowing down has been so necessary to deepen my relationship with Him. My work…my busyness…my driven-ness… were keeping me from Him. And because of His great love for me, my Father removed these things so that I could know Him better.

Isaiah 40:31 says,

Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.

God is removing my weariness. He has helped me to move beyond the pain of the past. And every day, I feel myself gaining “new strength” as He prepares me for the next step in His unfolding plan.

- Julie