Spiritual friendship

Spiritual direction saved my ministry! In the early 1990s, I “hit the wall” and entered a program in spiritual direction through Oasis Ministries in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, because I was burning out and needed to learn how to pray again. In the years since, I have benefited greatly from spiritual direction; I also have found a yearning for it in congregations I have served, with people on a journey of discernment or in search of healing or liberation. I became a devotee of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius and have shared this dynamic process of spiritual discernment with as many individuals and groups as I can — with anyone who expresses even the slightest interest. I describe spiritual direction (or spiritual friendship, as I like to call it) as walking along with someone as they discern the movement of God in their life and as they describe their spiritual forest, oasis, desert or wilderness — the vulnerable spaces where God seeks to bring resurrection out of the death-tending stuff of our lives. Over the years, the sharing has been rich and deep, and it has been a blessing to be a companion to people opening their lives to God’s liberating and healing Spirit.

Over time, I found myself yearning for a deeper, more robust connection between my practice of spiritual disciplines and the activism that was also an integral part of my life in ministry. Others in the congregation I was serving at the time, The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., shared this longing and eventually 10 of us made a yearlong commitment to what we called “The Engaged Spirituality Group.” Members of the group served on different boards and in various ministries of the church, and we united around a common desire for a pragmatic and powerful connection between our spirituality and our activism. We committed to meeting once a month for group spiritual direction focused on our contemplative and activist pursuits. We read and discussed books by Howard Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh and others who modeled engaged spirituality. We shared hopes, dreams and struggles about our work in the church and in our community. Our time together was poignant and transformative, with ripple effects in both our individual lives and in our participation in varied ministries of the congregation.

While with this group, I shared my emerging sense that in my own journey of faith, my spirituality and my activism were finding a deeper and more essential connection at a place I had not anticipated at the outset: at the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross reveals both the brokenness in our own lives and the corresponding brokenness in the world. It exposes other crosses, large and small, that litter the landscape of our world and of our personal and corporate lives. It also discloses the God whose resurrecting power is always (and already) at work, bringing life out of death and establishing footholds for the unfolding of new creation. For as Rachel Held Evans in “Searching for Sunday” so memorably put it, “God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if you want in on God’s business, you better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world – including those in your own heart – because … that’s where God gardens.” I describe the cruciform (or cross-shaped) spirituality that now sustains my life and participation in God’s work in the world in my recent book, “The Cross Examen: A Spirituality for Activists.”

As we move from the turmoil of 2020 to the cautious optimism of 2021, I am hopeful, for I see so many churches striving to ground their spirituality in the broken places in our world: the fissures of race, economics and politics. Consider the number of churches who have committed to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 initiative. Many congregations have formed groups to study books by authors like Ibram Kendi, Isabel Wilkerson and James Cone. My profoundest hope for our new year is that spiritual direction in our churches will take the shape of the cross and resurrection — the very place where God gardens!