Where Does Spiritual Direction Fit In Christianity and Methodism?

Oh what a foolish child I was!  I can say that now, as a parent, for I see now the wisdom of my parents’ advice so many times, so many years ago.  Why am I reminded of this today?  I have two teenagers who live under my roof and each day it seems I open my mouth and hear either my dad or my mom speaking.  Oh what a foolish child I was!

We equate diplomas and accreditation with people who will give us wise counsel.  Most
times, this works out for us.  Yet, it seems to me that more often, the greater wisdom is found in the lives of those who carry no parchments and titles with them.  I think of my grandparents often when I think of wisdom and direction.

My dad’s dad and I had it out a couple of times.  He was a man hardened by struggle, who never slacked off and provided for his family as he baked in the west Texas heat maintaining oil wells for Gulf.  I’ll not ever forget the night when, with tears, he said to me, “Don’t be like me.  Stay in school.  Don’t be like me.” 

One of the struggles in church (and society for that matter) is that we have too many who seem to be saying the very opposite: “Be like me!”  I get the e-mails for promotional books.  I get the postcards for the next conference.  I hear colleagues maintaining the idea that if we’d only be like this person or that person, hold to this philosophical approach or implement these “cutting edge” plans, we’ll be successful.  Be like me.  Be like them.  Be like us.

In his book, “Soul Care,” Kenneth Collins points out that the sins of lust, drunkenness, and greed, dull our senses but so does boasting in our intellect, freedom and refinement.  Collins writes,”To use [John] Wesley’s own words, ’Dozed with the opiates of flattery and sin,’ these people imagine that they walk in great liberty.  It is actually a mistaken freedom, however, a freedom not to serve God and neighbor, but only to continue in sin (57).”  This, I think, is one of the blinders we install into our spirituality, namely, to ignore our sins in all their forms. Another is to dismiss the need for spiritual direction for laity and clergy.

The role of spiritual direction, while not always described by that term, is one of the foundation elements of the Christian spiritual journey (and Methodism as well).  Read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ many conversations with people one-on-one.  We find a pattern of questioning and listening and then the plain, simple words of guidance Jesus gives.  Paul’s and Peter’s letters reflect this.  Look at Paul’s personal letters of direction to Timothy, Titus and Philemon and we find Paul giving direction without missing the opportunity give correction.

The Methodist movement has embraced the ministry of spiritual direction and guidance from it’s inception.  Steve Harper makes note that as Methodist Christianity caught fire, John Wesley began relying on the example of spiritual direction given to him by his parents.  Dr. Harper notes, “The grand principle which gave rise to their ministry was ‘watching over one another in love’ – a clear reference to the spirit and methodology of sound guidance (Prayer and Devotional Live of United Methodists,74).”  Our soul care needs to be entrusted who care more for another than for the promoting of self.

It is important to note however that as we watch over one another, we are not to make anyone feel weak, “…only pilgrims on a way of formation that none of us is able to achieve ultimately or perform perfectly (75).”  Our lives should be permeated by the fruit of the Spirit, for it is, “God's Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways. And because we belong to Christ Jesus, we have killed our selfish feelings and desires. God's Spirit has given us life, and so we should follow the Spirit. But don't be conceited or make others jealous by claiming to be better than they are. (Gal 5:22-26 CEV).”

From the informal direction from friends and peers to the more formal relationship I have with a spiritual director, I continue to experience and see the fruit of the Spirit being formed in my life.  This direction keeps me on the rails, helping me recognize the change being done in my soul is only evidenced in how I am living with other people in this world.  A spirituality that only informs or conforms and does not transform is not Christian spirituality. 

At a time when our lives are hidden behind our avatars and constructed social media images, the need for connection and direction is all the more important.  None of us can simply assume it will happen but we must be intentional.  If you’re interested in knowing more, read my thoughts here or better yet, I encourage you to visit Heartson Fire which is the website of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and has a directory of UM directors.  Or consider Spiritual Directors International who also has a directory and maintains the guidelines for spiritual directors.


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