I've been working with a spiritual director for some time. In my travels around the country, I met another lay leader up in Salisbury, North Carolina with a story similar to mine. Mark Ritchie and his brother were the third-generation leaders of a family business named Cheerwine. It's a local soft drink company. Mark went to work for the company after college and slowly rose to the top, where he and his brother grew the business far beyond what the founders imagined. Then, over a period of time, a calling unfolded, and he walked away to become certified as a spiritual director. Our experiences growing up in the South, spending our careers in family businesses, and making a move from success to significance gave us a shared understanding of many things. He's also Lutheran with a real passion for discipleship. It's been a pleasure working with Mark.
As I've read the books Reveal and Follow Me, coming out of the research behind the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey, I have been fascinated by their findings. They define the survey this way on their website: The Spiritual Life Survey enables you to go beyond headcounts, providing you with the ability to get a snapshot into the hearts of your congregation and know for certain whether your church is truly meeting their spiritual needs and fostering their growth. It’s a focused, research-based view of how the spiritual journey unfolds, validated through extensive survey input from over 157,000 congregants in more than 500 churches. A number of Lutheran churches have participated, including the 15 churches of the pilot class of the TLi.
Their research found four stages of spiritual life and the beliefs, practices and behaviors that typify the stages. They also identified the catalysts that move people from one stage to the next. They found that people often stall in their spiritual growth and identified some of the things that get us stuck and unstuck. Among the findings is the importance of small groups in spiritual life, but only to a point. Small groups are very important to growth in the first two stages, but to move beyond, the need for a spiritual mentor or director becomes important. The prompting of a friend, along with what I've learned from this Reveal study, led me to seek direction.
In each of our spiritual direction sessions, after talking over what's been going on, we settle on a question to take to the Spirit. In a session I told Mark, "I'm trying to follow the path God lays out, and this work equipping disciple-making leaders is a leading of the Spirit. I just keep wondering, why is it so hard?" Mark asked, "Is that your question?" I responded positively, and we began our session.
We began a process of looking at the difficulties I was describing. Once again I thought back to the persistence and perseverance that I cultivated by working with my father for 15 years. At times, it wasn't pleasant, but the resulting discipline has stood me well over these years. Did I enjoy the experience? No. Am I glad to have the resulting perseverance? Yes.
As I went through a litany of difficulties, one after another, Mark listened. Each time, he asked me what I learned from the experience. He asked whether I was glad to have the knowledge and wisdom that came from the challenge. I considered whether it had been a good thing to have gone through and learned these things. Each time, the answer was yes.
By the end of our session, the question that formed in my mind was, "What's your complaint?" I thought back to the book of Job. Job has everything taken away, is accused by his best friends of bringing it all on himself by his sin, and Job weathers it all while maintaining his steadfast faith in God. Job recounts all that he has done to walk righteously in the path of the Lord, and he can't understand why disaster has befallen him. Finally, God responds to Job's questioning in verse 40: The LORD said to Job: "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!"
Just last Monday, as we gathered in our home with our small group, we viewed one of Rob Bell's latest videos, Whirlwind. In the teaching, Bell looks at Job and works through this text in a very compelling way. As you listen to him recite God's response to Job, the answer is obvious. This is a question of sovereignty and respect for the majesty and mystery of God. We cannot understand, we can just trust.
At the end of my session with Mark, I was left with the question, "Am I going to let God be God?" That was the question that the Spirit had for me that day. It reminded me of a saying from Mike Foss that I have repeated many times. Mike said in a sermon, "God and I rarely argue about what needs to happen. Most of our disagreements are about timing!" If I am really committing something into God's hands, I have to trust His timing. If we are indeed following the leading of the Spirit, it will happen when the time is right. Quit whining about it. God doesn't speak whinese.
In our Monday morning men's Bible study, we looked at the fifth chapter of Romans. I was struck by this passage from verses 3-4: "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."
So here is another layer to the question. How do we get to the point where we can rejoice in our suffering? To rejoice is well beyond just not whining about our challenges. Perhaps the answer comes a little later, in Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." The second half of this verse qualifies the first. This verse seems to apply to a subset of humankind, those who love God and have been called according to His purpose. As I stated earlier, I do love God, and indeed feel called according to his purpose. For a decade, I've been following God's faint path towards the shapes in the mist that He reveals during my time of prayer and meditation.
So, this verse from Romans helps me see that indeed some good will come from the pain I am experiencing. Sadly, I can usually only see the good in the rear view mirror, when I've moved on from the moment. But I do trust that good will come from these challenges. I've seen it time and time again in my life. Still, even knowing that God will turn the painful suffering in my life to the good doesn't get me to the point of rejoicing.
So, in my next session with Mark, the question I took to the Spirit was, "How do I get to the point of rejoicing in my suffering?" Through his gentle process of inquiry, Mark led me to look deeply at this issue. What I learned is that suffering often gets us focused on what's missing in our life. In this case, I have been focusing on my physical problems, the pain that is causing my suffering. My good health is what is missing. Mark helped me to shift this focus to what is present in my life, away from what is missing. As I went through in my mind a list of those things I have, it includes a wonderful family, a life most would love to have, a calling and opportunities to live it out. But most of all, what I have is God's presence in my life. Whether I can feel it or not at the moment, I know He is there. I stand on his faithful promises.
So, as I spent 45 minutes in an MRI machine taking pictures of what is wrong in my body, I focused on God's presence with me there in that room. I spent the time immersed in prayer, talking with Him, focusing on what I have, not what's missing. By the time I was finished, I had begun to understand the truth Mark had led me to uncover. When God walks with us, we always have something to celebrate, a reason to rejoice. I'm still hurting today, but my perspective has changed. Even in the worst of times, God's presence is a truth to hold onto, and a cause for rejoicing.