Fleetwood Range – Listening to the Spirit – Fall Assembly 2015 Keynote Speaker
Prayer to begin
Day by day, O Lord, let me touch as many lives as possible for You. And every life I touch, do You by Your Holy Spirit quicken whether by the words I speak, the prayers I breathe, or the life I live, and all for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen
I want to say first that I am honored to be chosen to speak to you today. I know this is what people usually say when they are invited to speak, but I mean it. In my mind, DOK chapters are of fundamental importance because I believe that an active, spiritually vibrant chapter of The Daughters of the King has a binding grace. Such a chapter has the capacity to be the living heart of a congregation. I’ve watched that grace come into being and have rejoiced at the results in my own parish. So if I can have even a small part through only one person here to bring new and deeper spirituality into a DOK chapter, then I am—truly—honored to do it. Thank you for having me.
Listening to the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit of God.
The Holy Spirit of God filling the kingdom of the heavens.
The Holy Spirit of God filling your whole being.
Right now, in your inner self, welcome the Spirit and the kingdom into the deepest part of your own spirit. Invite the Holy Spirit of God into the depths of your life now, and listen to Him as you and I talk together. We will talk about listening to the Spirit. Listen…He is within you. Come, consider these things with me.
When God calls a new follower of Christ into being, that person is full of excitement. I have found that the first questions of a new Christian circle around a dilemma: I want to listen to God and do His will. But how do I know it’s really God I’m listening to and what if I don’t do His will? New followers of Christ, and by this I mean anyone of any age and any church background who has suddenly and for the first time encountered the personhood of Jesus Christ. And in that encounter been overwhelmed by Him. When that happens, this new Christian falls in love with the PERSON they have known about but never really met. And that new Christian in her new love desperately desires to love and serve her new Lord. She is desperate to know how!
When you read the words of the Spirit written to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:4-5, the Spirit says, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen!” The excited love experienced by the new Christian is that “first love” of which the Spirit speaks. Keep it in your heart that Christianity is not a religion. You can’t just read and study about it to make it real. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ. Christianity is the continuing experience of knowing the living Christ. Therefore, you have a relationship that must be daily nurtured in love.
So how do you know who it is that seems to be speaking to you? How can you gain any confidence about what you hear, what you know, what you discern? It’s never a sure thing. Only listening, acting, and evaluating can help you gain such trust. If the fruit is rich and full, you know God has been in it. If you are inviting the Spirit in, you also know that God will not let you go badly astray. Trust that God will protect you from doing real harm. Because He will. Accumulating experience following Christ tells you that He will.
Besides, you don’t listen, act, and evaluate in a vacuum. Look around at your sisters here. Know that you cannot be a follower of Christ all by yourself. There are three things you can and should do to help reassure yourself in listening to the Spirit:
- Compare with the Bible. If you aren’t reading the scriptures regularly, this will be extremely difficult. I’m not even going to take the time to explain this except to say that you cannot recognize the words and callings of God if you don’t talk with Him and read his words constantly. He just won’t be familiar to you.
- As Paul says, the mind of Christ is to dwell in you, and you are to dwell in the mind of Christ. That means to hold up everything you think, do, and say against the loving mind of our Lord Jesus. Dwelling in your own mind or in the mind of even your most dearly beloved won’t work. Dwelling in any mind but that of Jesus Christ will leave you without a firm place to stand. We read in Ephesians 2:22, “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Christ means to move in and live with you. That God-filled dwelling is the one firm place where you can stand.
You first immerse yourself in the scriptures and second dwell in the mind of Christ in order to hear the Spirit as He speaks within you. But then what?
- Then, you must share your journey with other followers of Christ. This can be a time for guidance from a spiritual director if you have one. Or the steady support of a soul friend (anam cara, as the Celts expressed it.) Or, perhaps, discussion with your study group. Any of these routes can play a part in your goal of listening to the Spirit and discerning what He says. Discerning is the important word here. The task in listening to the Spirit is always to discern, not to decide.
Let me throw in something else before we talk about discerning the voice of the Spirit. I expect most of you are aware that I am a spiritual director. I was formally trained in direction at the Benedictine Abbey in Pecos, New Mexico, and have followed this calling for 25 years now. I, along with Fr. Mike Gemignani, our DOK chaplain, was part of the group in this diocese that planned and set up FIND, our diocesan school for spiritual formation and the training of spiritual directors. We began in 1997 and have graduated well over 100 students in the 18 years since. I retired from teaching in FIND just three months ago. (The Reluctant Spiritual Director) I have to say that taking FIND from a wistful hope in 1997 to a thriving school across 18 years of work has been the achievement of my life. It is forever a joy to know that FIND exists and is long past needing me to be a part of it.
I tell you this here to let you know that I speak out of an abundance of experience with blossoming new Christians. So, I do have a lot of experience with blossoming souls. They are the great joy of my life! They are so anxious to do things “right.” Am I loving Him correctly? That sounds humorous, but it is an agony for those going through it. What they need—and this is another thing I see regularly in new, developing Christians—is confidence in the truth of God’s love and longing for them personally.
The hardest thing to learn seems to be this simple truth: The Great God of the Heavens loves you completely and unconditionally. You alone. Just you. God longs after you so much that he created you. Have you ever thought about that? Why else would God have created us except out of his own overflowing joy and a longing to share it even beyond the Holy Trinity of his Being.
But we have turned away from God’s offer of love over and over in our own lives. Just like the Hebrew people did throughout biblical history. God mourns over them in the OT and says he feels like a betrayed lover. They are never satisfied with Him, and He grieves. He does. God grieves over our lack of love for Him, yearning to have us for His own.
Some 2000 years ago, Jesus of Nazareth walked over the crest of the Mount of Olives and looked down on the city of Jerusalem perched on the rocky Judean hills below. He saw Herod’s great Temple there, still unfinished, with its white marble and gold overlay flashing fire in the clear desert air. He saw the crowds moving around on the vast platform of the temple precincts. And he wept. Luke (13:34) tells us that Jesus wept and said:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Be assured, this loving, longing, brooding God is calling you—just as Jesus called out when he wept over Jerusalem. It isn’t easy to receive God’s love. Fear and pride block the way. Don’t let the twin demons of fear and pride keep you out of God’s loving, reaching arms.
So how, indeed, does the Great God of Heaven speak to one small you through His Holy Spirit? Elijah was given the “still small voice.” I wonder that few people comment on the silence that is required to hear that voice. Silence is the natural habitat for my own soul. My personality type is one that grows and prospers with silence and aloneness. But even if you are one of those thoroughgoing extraverts of the world, you can still put yourself into a situation of privacy and desire for God, and there deep soul silence can be fully present.
Your prayer may begin with many words, but they soon thin out into a trembling silence. Don’t be afraid. Stay there and listen. I read recently that silence is the final effort of the soul that overflows and can speak no more. Very often, a silence thus shared with the Spirit IS the message. That message will never have words, but you will always hold it and understand it.
So now we’ve made the circuit and come back to that first, difficult question: How does the Spirit speak to me? And how do I know what He is saying? The Spirit presses into your mind and soul. You are most unlikely to hear booming words. But a picture, or a phrase, or a new idea may be suddenly imprinted on your mind out of nothing. Pay attention then. I, for example, may be worrying about my older sister’s well-being. Later that day, I feel a prompting to take my car in for some delayed maintenance work. I follow that kind of prompting. It makes sense. It does no harm. The very foreignness of the thought at that time takes my attention. Then the next week, my sister is in the ER 100 miles away across Houston. I can travel to her safely.
Does that not sound spiritual enough for you? It needs to because our Lord cares about every detail of our health, joy, and safety. With each little prompt I follow, the more eagerly I follow the next ones. And they prepare me to act when a terrible and unexpected death occurs among my friends. No detail is too small, too plain, too unimportant for the Spirit to use it. In the tapestry of our lives, the weaving—and the unweaving—of every thread matters.
A great many years ago, I was faced with a decision that would change the course of my life. I prayed fervently because, though I really favored one of my choices, I wasn’t sure it was the blessed choice. Walking alone one evening, I pondered this. Suddenly, I felt the words so simply, “Do what you want to do. You will have a good life either way.” Wow. That was hard. Just do what you want to do? How can that be a message from the Holy Spirit? I thought there was always just one right answer. Not so. In time, discernment brought me to believe that I really was allowed to have what I wanted. And so I chose.
I know God shared my joy with me. And when the distant ending was imperfect, he shared my sorrow with me. The Spirit made me understand that I had not done wrongly but rather lived in an imperfect world and was imperfect myself. To this day I am not sorry for that particular decision. It enriched my life. What I’m telling you is, don’t expect perfection when you follow the Spirit. It won’t happen in this part of the Kingdom. Expect His presence.
Impressions on heart and mind, the rare audible words, a scripture taking fire as you read it, a casual remark by a friend, a view, a memory. Any of these can carry a message from the Spirit. The pivotal part is for you to be aware. Constantly aware. To have a running conversation with your Lord through every waking hour. When you read Brother Lawrence’s book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he insists he feels just as close to God when he is scrubbing pots in the kitchen as he does when he receives the sacred wafer. Why? Because he feels the full presence of God in both moments.
When you are with a close friend, you have two ways of being together. The first is talking and laughing or talking and crying; the second is to be silent. Simply present to one another. When my mother was in the ER with a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, my rector Jim Morgan was there with me. During the hours into the early morning while I was working to get permission to take her off the respirator, stop the IVs, and then wait for her to die, Jim sat quietly in a chair in the corner. He brought me food. He asked a few relevant questions. But overall he was simply present for me. It was all I needed because I am a very calm person, but I needed his presence so much. When the time came, we read the prayers for the dying together. My mother died, and Jim drove me back to Huntsville. What a gift his silent presence was. What a gift…It was full of the Spirit for me. And I listened to what the Spirit spoke.
That is how you learn to allow the Spirit to be present with you at all times. You will come to know Him, hear Him, and discern His message. It will happen often. You will not be alone. And you will not be afraid.
It may have already occurred to you that I am speaking in simple terms here about spiritual formation. When one learns to listen to the Spirit, and trust those emanations from the Spirit, then all else will fall out from there. One learns to listen by listening. Spiritual direction is the calling God prepared me for throughout the first 50 years of my life, even though I was clueless about it. I heard that call when I was 50 and have followed it until today. I am impeded by my physical weakness, so I have cut back on the number of directees I see.
Surprisingly, I find that I’m not limited by my mental problems. (More on that in a minute.) What that tells us is that interaction with the Spirit and other people does not depend on your IQ or on your educational level. It is vital for you to know that life in the Spirit depends solely on your openness to the Spirit and your joy in Him. It does not require high intelligence. It does not require an advanced degree. And I find that it does not even require smooth cognition. I love what one of my great heroes, the late psychiatrist and spiritual director, Dr. Gerald May, said about this:
It seems to me that anything that really needs to be understood about life has to be understood by the least sophisticated or intelligent of us—which means there probably isn’t all that much that we really have to understand. (Add what he said about this at the Q & A session.)
Does that mean that Bible study, devotional readings, and maybe some commentaries and other information about the faith aren’t needed? No. It means that you will study and learn about the faith at whatever level or pace you are drawn to. It means you will be faithful to your Lord in all ways, including the use of your mind.
I have listened for what the Spirit has to say to me as I have prepared for this day. I have prayed that the Spirit would give me the words you, my listeners, need to hear. And for that to happen, of course, I have needed to listen with tenacity through these last few months of preparation. Listening to the Spirit is the base, the core of fulfilling our vows of prayer and service as Daughters of the King. I have talked with you about how we hear the Spirit and how we know it is the Spirit we are hearing. I’ve also talked about how longingly God loves us and seeks us to love him in return. Some of you are asking, “How do I do that? What does it even mean to love God?”
Well now, that’s a tricky one. In English, the word “love” has to cover both my relationship with God and my joy in Blue Bell Cookies ‘n Cream. To love another being is to put that being’s value above all others. It means that you would give yourself to God and either fast from the Blue Bell or die if that’s what He asked of you. It also means that in time, perhaps already, perhaps often, you will experience an overwhelming tide of joy and longing for the presence of God. You will love him always and feel his presence often.
And now, out of all my prayer and concern about this talk today, there is something personal I believe I need to tell you because it is a witness in its own way.
This keynote speech will probably be the last public speaking I will ever do, and I am convicted that in it God has been telling me to share not my knowledge so much as my experience in listening to the Spirit. That’s what I have tried to do today.
You may already be aware that I don’t remember and understand nearly as well as I used to do. You laugh, but in my case it’s written on my medical chart. I have prayed to get through this talk coherently and have actually read most of it. Working from an outline has always been my teaching style, but it’s a bit too chancy for me now. Obviously I have some physical problems. They stem in part from 51 years of what the doctors currently label as fibromyalgia. It’s tough, but whatever my physical problems may be, I have an even bigger mental one.
Several years ago, at my own request, I was thoroughly tested and told that I had a non-Alzheimer’s mild cognitive impairment. I was also told it would progress but at an unknown rate. I’ve been blessed. Nine years along I am still rated as “mild,” (mostly because I can still dress myself and tie my shoes) but my next neuropsychological test is a little over two months away, and “mild” would not be my word for it now. My older daughter who has been my caretaker for the last two years would agree with me on that.
I am easily confused, have a terrible time retrieving words and names, forget things innocuous and things important, and I struggle to maintain concentration. Consequently, I pulled back at first when I was invited to speak to you today. I truly wasn’t sure I could do it. But in the end I felt the call and have managed to get this far.
It has been a pleasure to do this. I will miss teaching and speaking in the future. But we all have to walk up to the edge of our lives’ changes, take a deep breath, and then step out. The Spirit will speak to me as He did to another in this wonderful little poem:
And did you get what
You wanted from this life even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
God will continue to use me to my last breath…if I will let him. Please pray for me that I will. Paul asks in his letter to the Ephesians:
Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
And so, my sisters, I will walk on, bearing in my heart what C.S. Lewis’ Green Lady says in Perelandra:
“…to walk out of God’s will is to walk into nowhere.”
From The Imitation of Christ:
Far more noble is that learning
which flows from above, from the divine influence,
than that which is laboriously acquired
by the industry of man.