Written/posted during vacation. Written Sunday, June 13, 2010.
“How is it with your soul?”
This should be a familiar question to many of you. It is a standard question used by many small “covenant” groups (modeled after the earliest Methodists’ bands, meeting to encourage and hold accountable one another). In essence, the question is often posed by pastors, group leaders, or others to allow an individual to share about their current spiritual health. (It might be similar to the open-ended questions a spiritual director might use, but I have less experience with one-on-one direction…)
The question came to mind this morning as I was driving to worship in another local church (I’m on vacation this week). Specifically, it struck me because of the landscape.
The north side of the highway I was driving down was lush with pines, junipers, scrub, and other assorted greenery. A richly forested example of life. The south, though, was sparse. There was the clear evidence of a long-past fire that the fields were recovering from. Though green, the shrubs, junipers, and lone pines were fewer, farther between, and generally younger, with various grasses and other greenery growing between them. There was life, and much of it, but it was radically different – and appeared, at first glance, less rich than the forest to the north.
It occurred to me that right now, my “soul” (or “spiritual life” if you prefer) is akin to that side of the highway. There is every evidence of something that was richer – denser – once upon a time, but some force had scrubbed it asunder, and new, younger growth was in its place. Still growth, still green, just different.
A lifetime as a follower of Jesus has led to a variety of spiritual experiences and “knowledges” (for lack of a better word!) taking root; but twelve years in pastoral ministry – and particularly the rigors, insecurities, and self-doubts of serving in a “new” church the last four years – have changed the landscape for me. Some stalwarts of the past remain – towering among the other, new growth just taking root – waiting for the forest to regenerate.
I am not complaining of a “dark night” of the soul*, per se; as much as observing that what in first glance might have appeared to be sparse is simply different, belying radical change but also the beginnings of new life. The guilt or frustrations I’ve had of late, related to the dearth of disciplines or spiritual vigor in my life was, this morning, transformed with the realization that my life has, in the last decade, undergone radical changes (as, I am sure, has yours!); as a result, my soul has experienced change, too.
Let me share a concrete example of the change in terrain in my soul. Ten years ago I was adamant and gung-ho that things “had to change,” that the Church had to go through significant renewal, that local congregations were out of touch, that the majority just didn’t seem to get it, that churches were more etc. Today, when I hear the same mantras from others, I find myself stopping to pause. I agree that our congregations and denominations must pursue some fundamental and important changes (e.g., Methodism must re-organize itself and eliminate a great deal of our upper levels), but the attitude that drives that recognition is different. Instead of an angry, agitated spirit of immediacy, I now recognize that although flawed and in need of constant renewal, the Church is also beautiful and life-giving; both flawed and broken as well as transformational and holy.
The image this morning was insightful, enlightening. Post-fire, the forest was returning. In my own life, my soul might have experienced some radical razing, but new life will grow.
*”Dark night of the soul,” a phrase that originates with Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, is often used to refer to “dry” periods in one’s spiritual life, as well as (inaccurately) to depression.