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.

On the Trail as the Pilgrim: Praying the Jesus Prayer on the Journey

I recently posted regarding the week my daughter and I spent backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.  One of the things our time on the trail reminded me was how memories are made in living not watching others live.  Intentionally separating ourselves from digital communication was a renewal of personal communication.  It provided great conversation for her and I, for us and the people we met on the trail and for me, it was a chance to meet up with God in a unique way.

          In the past few years, I’ve begun changing the focus of my blog and writings toward spiritual formation.  During that time my ministry as a United Methodist pastor has been directed toward helping both churches and individuals engage in spiritual practices which help us not just speak to God but to listen to what God is speaking to us.  One of the formative elements of my journey and my teaching has been in regards to “The Jesus Prayer,” and I’ve written about it in other places.  It is a simple and profound prayer which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

          On the trail, as I hiked my own hike, I prayed the Jesus Prayer and prayed other “breath prayers” over and over again (Note, a breath prayer is a prayer in the same structure as the Jesus Prayer.  It is formed by an individual addressing God regarding a particular yearning or need in one’s life).  Each step I took, each breath I took, I spoke the prayer again and again.

          The story and history of the Jesus Prayer is best told in the book, “The Way of thePilgrim.”  The tradition of the prayer comes from the Orthodox Tradition of the Church.  It is a very ecumenical prayer and though simple, is profound.  The history of the book is unknown as is the identity of the pilgrim.  The author writes,
“In the first part, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,’ it leads our thoughts to the life of Jesus Christ, or, as the holy Fathers put it, it si the whole gospel in brief.  In the second part, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner,’ it faces us with the story of our own helplessness and sinfulness (pg 135).”

          With each step and with each breath, the phrases of the prayer rolled around in my mouth, in my head and in my heart.  And it was in the journey that I came to realize that the trail, the actual, physical journey opened up my soul to the work of the Spirit.  In the book, the story of the pilgrim is one of journey, of physically seeking and moving. 

Why is that important?  Maybe it was something like Saul/Paul, maybe Jesus needed to speak to him on the road.  I’m not sure but I can tell you that I experienced something on the trail I had not in prayers at home or in the sanctuary.  I could sense the Spirit pulling out of me two people, two moments in time, buried down deep who I need to make amends to.  It was at once easy and difficult but I doubt that I could have come to that place in my soul had I not been at that place on the trail.

We are a sent people not a staying people.  We are not called to rest on our laurels but in Christ Jesus.  

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