Hospitality as a Catalyst for Change


Hospitality . . . means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 51.

Artwork Courtesy of Joan Fullerton

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Sweet Consolation, Painful Desolation

0004702_julians_gospel_illuminating_the_life_and_revelations_of_julian_of_norwich. . . some souls profit by experiencing this, to be comforted at one time, and at another to fail and to be left to themselves. God wishes us to know that he keeps us safe all the time, in sorrow and in joy; and sometimes a man is left to himself for the profit of his soul, although his sin is not always the cause. For in this time I committed no sin for which I ought to have been left to myself, for it was so sudden. Nor did I deserve these feelings of joy, but our Lord gives it freely when he wills, and sometimes he allows us to be in sorrow, and both are one love. For it is God’s will that we do all in our power to preserve our consolation, for bliss lasts forevermore, and pain is passing, and will be reduced to nothing for those who will be saved. Therefore it is not God’s will that when we feel pain we should pursue it in sorrow and mourning for it, but that suddenly we should pass it over, and preserve ourselves in the endless delight which is God.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), Showings, 205.

Artwork Courtesy of Robert Campin

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Our Mistrust and Suspicion of Others

At the root of our estrangement from God or anyone else is reactive mistrust. Toward God our mistrust demonstrates itself in thinking we can live well apart from fellowship with him and obedience to his revealed will for our lives. We are estranged from others because we cannot shake our exaggerated self-reliance and self-preoccupation. Our relational detachment is sad. We were created for communion and union. But our experience doesn’t match what we long to experience. In the end estrangement is the essential and devastating consequence of the mistrusting false self. Reactivity always leads to relational breakdowns.

Merely naming something as sin or an idol is inadequate to deal with the complexity of relational dynamics. Brokenness and alienation are not addressed with a repentance that depends on willpower alone to overcome relational problems. We must come to grips with what has gone wrong at the core of our being. We must know what is happening in our souls. As John Calvin wrote years ago, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess . . . consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

When we are preoccupied with maintaining an image that the soul was not created to maintain, we grow emotionally weary. We become disillusioned and discouraged without knowing why. God feels distant and so do others. The closeness we desperately need and want eludes us. The weight of creating our own false-self identity overburdens our souls. We become susceptible to despair and bad behavior.

By God’s grace the demand of making me a “me” becomes too heavy for us. We “come to our senses” like the prodigal in Luke 15. Unfortunately, it often happens after we awake in a “far country.” But, thankfully, this can be the first step to a new way of life. . . . Growing our capacity for receptive trust of God, others and ourselves requires tender humility and tough honesty. Mistrust never leads to life. We must face our soul directly and soberly. Cultivating soulful relationships is not for the faint of heart. But it can and must be done. The good news is that God makes change possible.

Richard Plass and James Cofield, The Relational Soul, 65-67.

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3 Things that Kill Love

3 things kill loveA wise marriage counselor once told me that there are three things that kill love in a marriage. Without the appropriate virtues, marriages will remain stuck or fail. I suppose that these three vices will also kill love in any relationship.

A Lack of Self-Awareness

It can be said of all humans that there are things “we don’t know that we don’t know.” This becomes acutely painful in relationships, especially when we don’t realize how we are coming across to others. We can be innocently ignorant, or willfully ignorant. By means of poor socialization, cultural narrowness and/or historcial naivete we can have appreciably negative effects on others. We remain out of touch with reality if we don’t have some standard by which to calibrate ourselves–something or Someone who is bigger than our socially constructed views of reality. We are inclined to use ourselves and our preferences (that with which we are familiar) as the standard of measure. The homes we grew up in seemed reasonably normal–until someone came along and annoyingly pointed out the dysfunction. Do you have some means, some standard by which you calibrate yourself to reality? 

A Lack of Ownership of Sin

Denial of guilt is a built-in default of the human condition. “Hiding” and “covering” begins in early childhood and extends well into adulthood. And it goes with many to their graves. Hiding becomes sophisticated as we age. This is most noticeable when we take on clever personas and self-protecting strategies. Covering is equally sophisticated: blame-shifting, minimizing, rationalizing, self-justification are ways of we avoid responsibility for our poor choices. In some instances, calloused hearts are no longer able to take responsibility for bad choices. In other instances, a lack of ownership of sin can be due to shame that has been deeply buried and unexplored. Does anyone explore your soul and help you see that you and you alone are the owner of your sin? Do you allow, even invite this?

A Lack of Humility

Some ancients believed that pride was the ability to make oneself look larger than normal. In other words, to make life work and to keep people under your control, acquire an exaggerated sense of self-importance. In order for this to happen, God is pushed to the periphery of our thinking; he becomes a mere bit-player in our stories where WE are the hero. In its most severe form we think of boasting as a lack of humility. In its more subtle forms a lack of humility consists of inwardly holding others in contempt, but being nice and pleasant on the outside. Over time, our inner lawyers can become crafty and intellectually overconfident. Brokenness is the corrective for pride. The hard knocks of reality have a way of pin-pricking our inflated selves. Tragedies, sickness, financial reversals, relational abandonment can be the effective means of penetrating a proud heart. So too, the “faithful wounds” of friends can sometimes serve as a catalyst for brokenness. When was the last time someone gently, but firmly pointed out your lack of humility? When was the last time you allowed it? Invited it?

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Obviously, these three love-killers can be developed more fully with greater sophistication and nuance. Suffice it for now to say this: Insight alone does not bring people to a recognition of their love-killing ways. Some kind of emotional and experiential shift has to happen. The internal pain of these love-killing strategies has to become too much to bear. The sufferings of life can also serve as a recalibrating jolt for stubborn hearts. Moreover, the ears of mature and discerning people are needed for shifts to occur. Here’s where a mentor or spiritual director can be most helpful. Do you have a mentor or spiritual director? Lasting change is well nigh impossible without the input of wise and discerning guides. Finally, some of the best soul work happens in small groups with seasoned guides, humble leaders who are Spirit-filled and biblically-informed. We all have love-killing leanings. Do we and are we willing to invite others to recalibrate our skewed and self-focused views of reality?

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Is Spiritual Direction the Same as Counseling?

Spiritual direction is often compared to both counseling and mentoring. Understandably so, for as often as not all three of these occur in conversation between two individuals, usually in private, confidential settings. But spiritual direction is different from both counseling and mentoring, and the distinction on both fronts is an important one. The difference essentially lies in the agenda for the conversation and how this agenda is set.

In counseling, the agenda is set by the emotional needs of the one being counseled. While mentoring and spiritual direction may well include discussion about these kinds of issues, they are addressed along the way, not as the main focus of discussion. And both spiritual directors and other mentors know that when it comes to emotional pathologies, they are well advised to refer others to a trained counselor.

In mentoring, the agenda is set by the one who mentors. That’s because, in a sense, mentoring is a form of teaching. One has a set of skills and trains the other in those skills. A person may want to be a pastor or an artist, and so he or she spends time with a senior pastor or master artist who mentors the person in those professions. Again, its not that counseling and spiritual direction will not have a teaching element or component; it is, rather, that in mentoring, the primary agenda is one of training and teaching, enabling a person to know a craft or to learn a mode of behavior or being.

Spiritual direction is different yet. The agenda is not so much emotional needs, nor is it a program of teaching. Instead the witness of the Spirit determines the course of the conversation. The fundamental posture taken in spiritual direction is one of being with the other, usually in conversation, in a manner that would enhance the capacity of the other to know how God is speaking. As often as not, the focus of spiritual direction is on enabling Christians to mature in faith, hope and love. But the agenda for this maturation is set by the Spirit, not by a formal program of formation, teaching or discipleship. These other programs may be good in themselves, but they are not to be confused with the ministry of direction.

Eugene Peterson has suggested that three basic assumptions lie behind this ministry. First, we can be certain of God’s gracious initiative. God is present and at work in each person’s life. Second, we can assume that a wealth of spiritual wisdom exists on which we can draw as we seek to respond to the work of God. And third, every person is different. We cannot work with predetermined outcome or model in spiritual direction for the simple reason that each situation is unique.

The bottom line remains the same: spiritual direction is the ministry of a fellow traveler (perhaps one who is older and more experienced) that enables another to respond to the initiative of the Spirit. And the one who provides this ministry cannot, and does not, know what the Spirit is saying for the other. Indeed we can never presume to know what the Spirit is saying to another. All we can do, through conversation with the other, is to foster an openness of heart and mind and suggest ways in which the person might come to clarity about the witness of the Spirit.

Spiritual direction, then, is not a ministry of giving counsel about decisions. Of course, it may be quite appropriate for a person to seek counsel in the midst of making a difficult decision. However, in spiritual direction, one of the most effective ways in which we can serve the other is by probing to see how the other can choose well, in intentional response to God.

Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 211-13.

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Narcissism: Succinctly Stated

The Narcissist we recognize as unhealthy is someone who, no matter what age, has not yet fully developed emotionally or morally. This person lacks a realistic sense of Self and an internalized system of values–apart from unmitigated self-interest–that guides behavior. In place of an accurate assessment of personal strengths, there is an exaggerated posture of importance unrelated to any real accomplishments. Instead of humility in the face of inevitable shortcomings, there is an overwhelming, and utterly intolerable, sense of shame though this is often well-disguised. There is also no ability to value, or often enough even to recognize, the separate existence or feelings of other people. The Narcissist may be intimidating, mesmerizing, even larger-than life, but beneath the bombast or charm is an emotional cripple with the moral development of a toddler.

Sandy Hotchkiss, Why is it Always about You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, xvii.

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Are You Telling Your Story Well?

missionalcommunitygathering-640x334“I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit” (Ps. 77:5-6).

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Too often some of us dismiss our personal history with thoughts like That was then or It’s time to grow up or What good will it do to remember all that old stuff? We strongly disagree. Remembering and telling our story takes us home to ourselves. There is no possibility of soulful relationships without an integrated soul that has embraced its story (the good, the bad, the ugly).

To be sure, remembering our story is not always easy. Some stories are filled with sadness, anger, disgust, anxiety, guilt, fear and shame. To revisit them is very painful. Other stories have major gaps. To revisit them is almost impossible because there are few memories from early years. But this is the work we must do even if the memories are difficult or not forthcoming. If we long for more soulful relationships, if we truly desire to be more fully present to our spouse, our children, our friends and even to God, then we must be more present to our story. Ignoring our story conscripts us into the service of our earliest emotional blueprints and the defenses we forged in order to feel safe. Exaggerated defenses force us to live in the shallow end of the relational pool. Remembering our story, entering our story, probing our story is the way by which we own and integrate ourselves.

So we recommend that you make every effort to remember and share your story. What did you live? Who were the important people in your childhood? How did they influence you? What are your best memories? What are your most painful memories? How have your painful memories influenced your way of connecting? Answering these kinds of questions helps bring your emotional blueprint into focus.

Whenever we begin a journey down memory lane, we shouldn’t be discouraged if the details are slow in coming. We can be confused or perplexed by what we remember. We can be befuddled with our feelings or lack of them. Or we can feel overwhelmed by what we lived. No matter what our experience, it is important to keep in mind one crucial thing when it comes to our stories: it isn’t enough to review them on our own. We must share them with another. We must do so because we are relational beings who are both hurt and healed by our relationships. We must have the presence of others to help us to see ourselves well. We need help even with our own story!

The act of telling our own story to someone who listens well is one of the ways by which our relational blueprint becomes more more endurable and available to us. In sharing our story our implicit memory is recalibrated and changed. An emphatic listener helps us access and expand our understanding of our emotions and thus our conscious identity. The relationship with the listener becomes a new way of connecting and understanding old patterns. The listener gives us a healthy emotional response that we will unconsciously begin to mimic.

And while we desperately need to share with another human being, we ultimately must share our story with God. Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, we must head home to our heavenly Father who longs for our return. The more of our story we bring to God, the greater will be the depth of our communion with God. And the more we enjoy God’s presence the more we will be able to enjoy the presence of others. In coming home to God we find we are coming home to our own souls.

Whatever your story is, our conviction is this–you are held by God, and God is always listening with a loving ear. God cares about your story because God cares about you. God hears and delights in your joy. God also hears the cry of your heart. Sharing your story with God does not mean painful, shameful memories will magically disappear. But God “gets” your story. He is a suffering God. And because he has suffered in the Son, our trinitarian God offers you a way to his heart through your suffering. In your pain God’s sorrow holds you, comforts you and over time heals you.

Richard Plass and James Cofield, The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection, 50-53.

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Are You in a Spiritually Dry Time? – Part 2

[During spiritual dryness] what is happening in our prayers is that we are less and less active so that the Lord may do his work. Thomas Green compared this work to that of a surgeon on an operating table. The image is an apt one. Frequently, in our activistic mindset, we are inclined to think that if there is a problem, we need to fix it. But the wisdom of John of the Cross suggests that we need to be passive before a divine surgeon. And . . . for the surgery to be effective, we need to be “unconscious.” The surgery is effective because we do nothing.

For activists, it is hard to believe that when it comes to maturity in our prayers, we are transformed because we consciously and intentionally choose to be still. Furthermore, activists assume that if we are doing nothing, whether in evangelism or worship or prayer, then neither is God doing anything. But what we are invited to appreciate is that God does some of his most important work when we are doing nothing. And when we are called to do nothing in our prayers, that is what we should do.

Further, we learn that in the dryness it is not that God is absent from us but rather that God is much more present. Many Christians believe that God’s presence should always be a pleasant experience, but the Bible says God’s presence is more like “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). And therefore, when our prayers are dry or dark, we discover that this does not necessarily mean that something is wrong; we learn that this may actually be an indication that things are as they should be. This experience of darkness is not desolation but rather is the quiet presence of Christ, and we accept his presence in faith and accept his work in our lives with submission. But we will not come to this situation unless we let go of a spirituality that demands we always feel good in the presence of God and unless we accept that the work of God is not something we can control or manipulate. Then we begin to grow into a mature love for God and begin to experience the transforming work of the Spirit.

Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 181-82.

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Do You Possess the “Power” of the Holy Spirit?

“Power” is used constantly in some circles as if it denoted sheer force, or as if it offered a parallel to “power” in such industrial contexts as steam power or electric power. But the biblical writings, of course, pre-date any notion of industrial power. In the Bible “power” does not denote some independent force but “effective” agency, and “the effective presence and activity of God.” Whatever in the range of varied tasks is carried out in the strength of the Holy Spirit becomes an effective task. There are two perils here. One is to assimilate the concept to modern industrial and mechanical society; the other is to conceive of a “spiritual” version of brute force, in contrast to personal love. Many will find such terminology as “power evangelism” and “power healing,” titles of two of John Wimber’s books (1986) and (1987), as at least problematic, and at most insensitive, to the associations we have outlined. It seems also to undermine the self-effacing character of the Holy Spirit . . . .

Karl Barth . . . avoided this problem by rendering the word “power: as “effectiveness” or “effective action.” Paul tells the church in Corinth, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). In my larger commentary on 1 Corinthians, I expounded this as “operative, effective, and actualized.” The Greek terms dynamis and dynatos refer to competence to perform a given function. Because, as Fee and others rightly insist, the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from God, the power of the Holy Spirit denotes the omni-competency of God . . . . it rules out any notion of “It’s all up to me.” Above all, the Holy Spirit should not be depersonalized; nor should love become subsumed under brute force.

Anthony C. Thiselton, The Holy Spirit in Biblical Teaching through the Centuries and Today, 498.

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I Don’t Want to Repent

st-isaac-the-syrian-6I have no broken heart to start me on the quest for thee, no penitence, no tenderness . . . . I have no tears with which to pray to thee.? My spirit is in darkness . . . my heart is cold.

I know not how to make it warm again by tears of love for thee. But thou, Lord Jesus Christ, my God, do thou give me complete repentance, the breaking of my heart, that with my whole soul I may set out in quest of thee. Without thee I should be without all reality. May the Father who . . . begot thee in eternity renew in me thine image.

I have forsaken thee. Do not thou forsake me.

I have wandered far from thee. Do thou set out in quest of me. Lead me back to thy pastures with the sheep of thy flock.

Feed me together with them on the fresh grazing of thy mysteries where the pure heart dwells, the heart that bears in it the splendour of thy revelations . . . through thy grace and by thy love for humankind, O Jesus Christ our Saviour, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetic Treatises, 2


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