- 01. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs
- 02. Experiencing God’s Companionship in creation and creatures
- 03. Hymns & Harmony
- 04. Harvest and Holocausts
- 05. Where is God in all of that? And what does a Spiritual Director have to do with any of it?
- 06. Home and Haven
- 07. Suggested Practices
- 08. Links to relatable resources on Conversatio.org
01. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs
For over twenty years JackNot his real name. To honor confidentiality of my directees, names and identifying details are changed. met faithfully with a men’s Bible study group where he found an open interdenominational brotherhood of friendship and Christian community. In the beginning, the sacred words were spacious containers in which to meet each other and their God, “Until COVID and Politics interrupted,” he said. When storms of global uncertainty, fear, and divisive partisanship crept in, conversations began to narrow, relationships became strained.
As they protectively contracted their worlds, the hijacked words became walls, barriers, and then armor. Jack mourns the once generous hospitality that hardened into hostility as respectful discourse plunged into debate. The sense of mutual regard and belonging in community shifted toward a bullying conformity to the most fearful and defended postures.
Their seeming preference for a vengeful God as judge and jury does not align with Jack’s experience or his growing relationship with God. While Scripture didn’t contract; their interpretation and use of it did, and the few whose views like Jack’s held to a “messy middle”See Gary Moon, “Today’s Political Climate: Is it Time for Christ-Followers to Bravely Step into the Messy, Mystical, Middle?” Conversatio Divina, accessed September 20, 2023, https://conversatio.org/todays-political-climate-is-it-time-for-christ-followers-to-bravely-step-into-the-messy-mystical-middle/ stopped attending.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Jack says. He borrows from C.S. Lewis’ chronicle of Narnia, The Last Battle, comparing his group to the ego-centric dwarfs, where Aslan explains to a tearful Lucy that the dwarfs are so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs,” Jack says, and shakes his head that “the extravagant generosity of God seems lost on them.”
Lamenting what he sees as patriarchy’s privileged power and abuses, Jack finds resonance with one podcaster’s grief over “maxilinity.” He decried a performance-based “do-do theology” among groups where aging members might grow in power and influence but never progress in the grace and wisdom of a godly Sage.Alan Fadling’s podcast with Chris Bruno, author of Sage: A Man’s Guide into his Second Passage, Unhurried Living #249, accessed September 20, 2023, https://www.unhurriedliving.com/blog/podcast249.
I listen as Jack describes an NPR interview of Christianity Today’s editor Russell Moore, author of Losing Our Religion, an Altar Call to Evangelical America. The sound bite that replayed in Jack’s mind (and across social media) was Moore’s lament that some pastors when quoting Jesus’ sermon on the mount (i.e., turn the other cheek or love your neighbor) get pushback from parishioners who say, “yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.” Moore’s remark better reflects Jack’s alarm: “When we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”Scott Detrow, “Russell Moore on ‘altar call for Evangelical America,’” NPR, April 5, 2023, accessed September 20, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/08/05/1192374014/russell-moore-on-altar-call-for-evangelical-america
Both Moore’s altar call and the journey to Sage fuel Jack’s aspiration towards Christ-likeness. His sense of exile from his group and his grieving loss of brotherhood is quite painful. “And sad,” notes Jack, “and so unnecessary!” So, he seeks a listener who can hold space for his questions and reflections, his Divine encounters, and conversations in the nuance and mystery of his daily with-God life.
As I listen and feel my own heart rise in solidarity with Jack’s desire for attunement with God, I am a witness to his arduous steps in discerning his own faithfulness. I want to be very aware and mindful of what is agitating, so that there is freedom for the braver response to God’s direct invitation to his heart and soul’s truest wants and desires. For that discernment, Jack is finding the practices of spiritual direction, silence, and solitude in nature all the more essential.
This is not to imply in any way a disregard for the sacred texts. Jesus explained to his early listeners that he came not to abolish but to fulfill God’s purposes to which the Scriptures point. Thus, following Jesus’ lead regarding the written text, the spiritual director will encourage openness to the sacred text of one’s experiences and encounters with Divine Presence, support their directees’ growing trust in the Divine Imagination within, and honor their consent to the Divine Longing that inspires their own for union with God. The aim is not transformation—though that is the fruit from tenderly gardening the Soul—but to foster consent to a lifelong venture into intimacy and love: A Love-long endeavor.
Scripture and human experience, creation and God’s communicating cosmos seem to indicate that this is the Way of God, however long it takes, however arduous the journey, or effortless the flow. A Love-Life that the true heart and soul always pull towards, that can tug the ego along in its wake.
02. Experiencing God’s Companionship in creation and creatures
Hearing God author, Dallas Willard, would caution Jack’s group about turning God “into an ATM for advice, or treating the Bible as a crystal ball,” and urge them towards the kind of life where ongoing intimacy and communion with God are a natural part. He writes:
Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of him and in our delight with his creation and his provision for our whole life.Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).
In her spiritual memoir, Diana Butler Bass recalls her childhood, communing with God’s creation, and trusting Jesus as her reliable guide through the Book of Nature and her inner light:
Deep within I was still the child that ambled through streams and fields, snuck outside to stare at the stars and felt the magic of falling snow. I could still summon the scent of roses and lilac that grew in my yard decades ago. . . . I understood the inward journey, the going deep within, to places of interiority that escaped words. This quest is a mapless journey. There is no single road. The only guides to it are nature, saints, poetry, songs and spirit. Where you dare leave the map behind, Jesus emerges as the road itself and the light that guides.Diana Butler Bass, “Way,” Freeing Jesus, Audible 4.00 minute mark from end of chapter.
While vacationing with her family during a season of grief, Kelsey, a pastor and spiritual director, found consolation and companionship with God in a spiritual practice of solitude by taking walks alone in creation. Meeting with me in spiritual direction, she reflected on walking by a horse pasture and stables when one of the horses came over to the fence to greet her:
He walked with me for half a mile, at my pace. It felt like he was saying “No agenda. Just you and me. I saw you and wanted to walk with you.” He was at ease and when I pet his face, he nuzzled my hand like a best friend saying “I enjoy this.” In the leisurely pace I felt something in my body nurturing my soul. It made me think of Aslan.The lion, Aslan, is the Christ figure in the C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia stories. Walking that morning, seeing the mountains in view, experiencing the Earth’s blessing in “the Body of the Lord be with you,” and encouraging me to “look up and look around.” I felt in my soul the gift of Joy in the bittersweet season, in letting go and receiving God’s companionship.
In an Aslan sort of way, God widened the sacred text of Kelsey’s life into her walk with nature, the four-legged friend, and her own heart. Like Diana Butler Bass, she experienced delight in God’s creation and consolation in a sorrowing season.
03. Hymns & Harmony
I made my way to the front porch rocking chair to watch the sunlight fade to dusk on a still very warm day. Ready to rest for the evening with the trees, the tilting light and a book to read, I’d only progressed a half chapter when my grown son Gabriel came by, brought out his book and sat in the rocking chair next to mine. We read companionably for a several minutes when he suggested we needed a better soundtrack than the intermittent electronic buzz of the Rodent Repeller in the near yard. He cued up a playlist of Hymns.
“It is Well With my Soul.” A summer soft gust answers the refrain, lifting leafy branches on the oak, blowing away the heat of the day. While robins bow to the ground and a big gray squirrel dances in the yard, a bold red squirrel steps up on the porch looking for a snack. Blackbirds land near, tilting their heads as if to listen better to the music.
“How Great Thou Art.” A tender Presence accompanies this moment; I feel I live such a charmed life. I want more of this. Just this. On the porch. Hymns on a Spotify playlist.
“This is My Father’s World.” The deer family, a mama and her twins, come up into the yard not 10 yards from us. They feast from the planters then graze in the yard before moving on to the apples in the orchard past the two alders planted in memory of my parents. The breeze blows the heat off the decking, setting oak and magnolia and maple branches to swaying, accompanied by old hymns through which a heavenly portal opens so I can hear my dad’s soft tenor singing to mom’s alto.
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” In wonder and awe at creation, the tender Presence with us to be sure, I was grateful for this glimpse of Gabriel in contemplative pose willing to cue up the music that connects him to me in a heartful way and connects us both across generations with the ancestors. What a gift to behold and be held here. . . . just like this.
Attentive to the moment, I am grateful for the old hymns, for Presence in creation, and the gracious gesture of Holy Love’s self-giving response to an earlier prayer—and perhaps it was Love’s desire and initiative that words came to me this restless week from the lines of an old hymn:
Beyond the sacred page, I seek Thee [Love];
My spirit pants for Thee, O Living Word.Mary A. Lathbury, “Break Thou the Bread of Life.”
The Living Word in the Living World, refreshes the panting spirit within us. It inspires Jack’s desire for encounter, which I believe mirrors God’s desire for him and for his group of men. It is the Consolation for Kelsey and the guiding Light for Diana Butler Bass. And for me.
04. Harvest and Holocausts
I began my morning walk in the orchard; the apple and pear trees offer their fruit to the deer, corn and potatoes and tomatoes are fully ripe in the garden, and along the road, thorny bushes form a corridor heavy with fragrance and the last clinging blackberries. While summer winds down toward fall, I am feeling my own finitude and mortality. Perhaps it is just this season of my life turning with the earth into the next. Or perhaps it is at the recent death of a close friend to cancer and our remembering the fruit of his life.
I recall visiting our old hometown cemetery at mid-summer, and the sighing sense of completion in finally seeing Mom and Dad’s grave marker. Still so new, the engravings are clear and sharp, and match the slightly weathered stone beside theirs which mom and dad placed over my sister on a late summer day seven years ago.
Dave, my husband—and my mother’s favorite son-in-law—helped her in her final weeks to capture all she wanted on her headstone, making sure it was ordered while mom could still sign her approval. I think she would’ve been pleased to see it there exactly as they’d sketched it. The twin markers stand modestly and solid on a quiet little rise where, on that day, it was sunny and peaceful. I placed a wreath of silk flowers against each marker, grateful for the sense of being with them, mom and dad, and with my sister.
Moving closer toward befriending my own mortality, I feel the “unbearable wholeness of Being” that Ilia DelioIlia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013). writes about, whether I’m in this body so suited for life on this planet, or in a less dense form of matter that is still Real but unseen. In this moment I can face without flinching that even while enjoying good health the years left for me on earth are fewer than those already passed.
I touch the soft familial memories tucked into the back pocket of my mind while walking the road. It’s early, the air still cool, the sky blue, the ground dry as straw, the shade slanted across the asphalt and gravel.
Touching fingertips to tree branches, I plucked a few blackberries to drink their juice, and lifted my arms in grateful pose and praise marveling at the plants and trees and creatures living in self-emptying, self-giving interbeing. I felt the great wonder of peace and joy in the inner whisper that this is heaven, already here and recall Elizabeth Barret Browning’s oft quoted line that
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.Elizabeth Barret Browning, Aurora Leigh (1857), Book. VII, l. 812–826.
I find myself praying for the people on Maui, and for their city of Lahaina that was overwhelmed with fire—sudden and devastating. Homes and historic buildings, businesses, all reduced to ash. Its great Banyon Tree charred. The fire storm rushed on winds gusting up to 67 mph. Some people jumped into the ocean to escape it while ninety-seven people perished and thirty-one are still missingJennifer Sinco and Rebecca Boone, “Hawaii officials say DNA tests drop Maui fire death count to 97,” U.S. News, September 19, 2023, accessed September 20, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/maui-hawaii-wildfire-death-toll-3dc505d4d83b6af5ee01fdaf173c4f01..
In the face of such devastating loss, even Job’s friends knew to stay present to him for at least a week without speaking. But too soon social commentators began casting about for someone to blame, to hold accountable, for someone at fault. Better to hold silence in reverence for their grief rather than assume that someone must have sinned.
Globally, just in August (2023), wildfires spread across Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Algeria, and Tunisia.Maddie Saines, “The world is on fire: ESA maps global wildfires,” GPS World, GNSS Positioning Navigation Timing, August 4, 2023, accessed September 20, 2023, https://www.gpsworld.com/the-world-is-on-fire-esa-maps-global-wildfires/ In Canada and the United States mainland, wildfires rage across thousands of acres of timber, and the southeast is undone by the winds and flood of Hurricane Idelia. In the aftermath of “natural” disasters, the alarming thought is that this will be an ongoing reality. I wonder if after the fires and storms there will be life again. I think of Noah and the floods, and how long he waited for the devastating waters to subside. I recall Elijah witnessing the wind, fire storm, and earthquake that preceded YHWH’s still quiet voice. I find hope in Lahaina’s charred but still alive Banyon Tree,Kevin Allen, “The Lahaina Banyan Tree: New Leaves Have Sprouted,” Hawai’i Magazine, September 19, 2023, accessed September 20, 2023, https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/a-ray-of-hope-the-lahaina-banyan-tree/ its 150 years old cambium layer showing signs it may recover. Watching and waiting, though I may not see it in my lifetime, I pray for resurrection life, for global, ecological, and human thriving for our planet.
05. Where is God in all of that? And what does a Spiritual Director have to do with any of it?
The seasoned Spiritual Director understands that, while scripture is always a reliable anchor, joining the Living Word in the Living World is key. She recognizes how God works simultaneously across all of the dimensions of our experience and in all of the arenas of our lives.Elizabeth Liebert, “Supervision as Widening the Horizons” in Rebecca Bradburn Langer and Mary Rose Bumpus, Supervision of Spiritual Directors: Engaging in Holy Mystery (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2005), 125–145. See ”The Experience Circle, 131. And she supports the prophet, the priest, and the mystic in insisting that“justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, ESV).
She participates in God’s luminous transfiguration and restoration of all things by being a witness and practicing the With-ness in the hymnody of creation that is praising the worship worthy Creator.
She listens, holding the space for living with the wonder, with the inconsolable lament, with the crying questions until the answers can be lived out of them.
She stirs a reservoir of compassion and bears witness to the transfigurations, seeing Light with an inner eye, hearing with the ear of the heart, and holding a container of hope by her presence in Divine Presence, an incarnate beacon that reminds us we are not alone. We are never alone.
She offers remedies that include encountering Presence in a spiritual direction session, in silence and solitude, in the beauty and harmony and spontaneity of creation, in the wonder that is felt in the consoling connections, and in the mercy of finally being divinely relaxed.
She waits and she prays:
Bless Thou the truth, dear Lord, to me, to me,
As thou didst bless the bread by Galilee;
Then shall all bondage cease, all fetters fall;
And I shall find my peace, my all in all.Mary A. Lathbury, “Break Thou the Bread of Life.”
06. Home and Haven
Discerning the Living Word for our lives is about a kind of life with God in a Living World that consents to Divine conversation, consolation, companionship, and communion. Scripture and human experience, creation, and God’s communicating cosmos help us.
Finished with the morning walk, I make the turn up our driveway and feel the familiar welcome of our own woods. I imagine my mom and dad, now luminous beings, enjoying their heavenly spaces too. Not here exactly, I thought, but in their own childhood landscape they called Rose Hill outside of Springdale, Washington, in the fields where Mom wanted to run again—of course Dad would be there too because she wanted it. Then softly at the edges of my mind comes a refrain they once sang together:
I’ve anchored my soul in the haven of rest,
I’ll sail the wide seas no more;
The tempest may sweep o’er the wild stormy deep,
In Jesus I’m safe evermore.Henry Lake Gilmour, (1836–1920), Haven of Rest, 1885, accessed September 20, 2023, https://hymnary.org/text/my_soul_in_sad_exile_was_out_on.
07. Suggested Practices
- Spiritual direction, silence and solitude in nature are essential practices for Jack for discerning a braver response to God. What needs brave discernment in your life right now. How might you arrange the details and your relationships to accommodate a 3-hour practice in silence and solitude for listening to your heart and God’s? Tell a prayer partner or soul friend what you noticed, felt, or heard.
- What inspires your Yes to what is life-giving. Is it like Diana Butler Bass in nature, biographies, poetry, art, or songs? Make a short list of simple helps or practices you might include that foster consent to a lifelong venture into intimacy and love. Choose a day to practice one of them. Notice what you want to say Yes to. How will you respond?
- Engage with Four-Legged Friends. Kelsey felt God’s companionship by walking with a horse. Form an intention to be attentive to your pet or the nonhumans that share your yard or woods. Notice what happens in your body and soul as you attune to them.
- Earth is crammed with heaven, claims Elizabeth Barret Browning. Where in nature do you experience heaven, already here. Make a date with that place and spend some time being a witness and practicing the With-ness in the hymnody of creation. How long does it take for you to feel divinely relaxed? Savor that.
- Scripture Meditation into daily life. Begin with Gratitude I or choose another selection from our Library of Meditations that will guide you into 8 to 10 minutes of scripture and then invites you into a practice of “Taking it with you” into your day. “Meditation Guide,” Conversatio Divina, accessed September 20, 2023.
08. Links to relatable resources on Conversatio.org
Janet Ruffing, “Opening One’s Heart to Another: The Rediscovery of Spiritual Direction,” Conversatio Divina, accessed September 20, 2023.
Trevor Hudson, “Retreat: A Time to Listen to the Groans,” Conversatio Divina, accessed September 20, 2023.
Dallas Willard. “Solitude and Silence,” Conversatio Divina, accessed September 20, 2023.
Conversations Journal: Gifts from the Monastery—Silence and Solitude, vol. 5.2 (Fall 2007), Conversatio Divina, accessed September 20, 2023.
Jean Nevills is a graduate of Western Evangelical Seminary and the Renovaré Institute and serves on the Renovaré Ministry Team. A listener, retreat leader, Spiritual Director and Supervisor, she serves on the content development team at Conversatio.org and is a founding board member, instructor and mentor at the CompanioningCenter.org. At home in the Pacific Northwest trees and terrain, marriage and mothering, a family business and community life are the natural arena for practicing what she’s learning regarding spiritual transformation, spiritual practices, and living life with God in a Jesus way. Learn more at https://jeannevills.com/.