Listening to longing
Last week I did a podcast about the present moment…the only now is now. If you didn’t catch that you can find it HERE - or subscribe to the mysoulrefresh podcast in iTunes for weekly prayer and spiritual practice prompts and encouragement. If that podcast - or any of our offerings here, prompt your desire to learn how to live more consistently in the present moment, we’ve got some day retreats and a weekend retreat coming up this fall…and we have spaces for SD as well. Please contact us for more info.
Shortly after I recorded that podcast, I had an encounter with someone in ministry - and it was so poignant and holy to me. I hold it with great tenderness and it feels almost too sacred to share. Mind you - SD is confidential…so as I share here, please know that I change any names and some of the details and I often make a “composite” of the person so there are not recognizable, identifying factors. But what I find is that most people's questions and stirrings that I have the privilege of hearing in the context of tending the holy in spiritual direction are much broader than just that one person. So often, these same questions and doubts exist in me and you too. And when I am able to appropriately share the stories many people thank me because someone just expressed how they felt and say things like, “Thanks, I don’t feel so crazy and alone anymore."
So here's what happened:
She’s tired. She’s lonely - not because she doesn’t have a lot of people in her life. This minister has been with her denomination for over thirty years, but she doesn't have anyone with whom she feels like she can share what's really going on inside. She's reaching for the "finish line" which is still a ways away. She spoke of having difficulty sleeping, of a mild irritable bowel disorder, and of feeling overall just lackadaisical. She endures her hours and uses whatever days - when she's not working or called into an emergency - to catch up on sleep. But, she never feels caught up.
She shared how she was moved a few years ago by her denomination and thinks it’s because she hasn’t done her job as well as she is supposed to (she guesses that's because she’s been so tired). The “smaller” city would be a smaller load for her to carry. The problem is, that in the “smaller” city she is wearing even more hats then ever. To her, the re-assignment felt more like a demotion.
At one moment the tears collected at the corner of her eyes - I don’t remember now what we were talking about but she said softly, “I just want to linger with Jesus…I just want to be with him. But the weight of this ministry is burying me."
My own chest felt like a weight dropped on it…in this moment I felt like Jesus in those passages when he looked upon the people and had compassion (literally a gut ache) over them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Surely, I had deep, deep compassion for her - and all those who dare to admit their weariness to me in the quiet of my presence. There is a tenderness and holiness to such raw longing. There is courage in the vulnerability.
I noticed, too, that my ire began to boil - because this is NOT a new conversation for me. Almost weekly I encounter people in ministry who are longing to fall in love with Jesus and it is THE MINISTRY which is (seemingly) preventing them from doing so. Too many ministry organizations are like Egypt - demanding “more bricks” with less straw. I know that it is way more complex than that, I just want to say, in my line of work, I am noticing the pattern and it feels epidemic.
We continued in our conversation as she talked about wanting to be Mary- sitting at the feet of Jesus, but feeling like she has to be Martha (Luke 10). And even in the moment, as we paused to “sit” with that part of her that wanted to be Mary - she could feel the sweet presence of Jesus merely saying, “I want that too.” Deeper tears emerged… Sweet, sacred, truth telling tears. As she lingered in the sacredness of God’s voice in this moment she quietly eked out, “But how?"
I didn’t answer. This is often what bugs most directees about spiritual direction - a good SD rarely answers the question, but believes that the answer is already present in the other’s soul. If there is space enough to not scare the soul away, there is often great wisdom residing there. Quite simply, God is already at work and is longing to reveal liberating truth. Our job as soul friends is to give time and hold the space for the answer to reveal itself, for the Lord to speak…and gently help remove any “barriers” that might be in the way. Sometimes this takes a long time. The more sophisticated the spiritual veneer, the more difficult it is to open up to what God has in a moment. Others times it’s miraculously instantaneous and so clearly evident that God is doing the work because I just am not that clever to manufacture or make up half the stuff that happens in my office. Sr. Mary Jo calls it “Tending the holy” I just say, “I have a front row seat to watching God love people!"
After some moments of quiet I merely asked, “What do you want now…right now…in this moment?"
She immediately replied, “I don’t know."
Clearly, to me, she answered with the top 3 inches of her body…but not from the deeper parts. I asked her where this longing to be with Jesus was in her body - where did she feel a yearning or expansiveness for the “so much more”?
It was in her womb area (interestingly, also the place where her “body” was acting up with her irritable bowel difficulties). Could it be that her body was speaking for her loudly because she was struggling to listen to her soul?
I said, “If you’re willing, why don’t you just gently put your hand there so that part of you that is longing deeply for Jesus knows it’s not alone.” She did so, taking deep breaths and becoming more calm as she “embraced” and nurtured this part of her. After a moment, I re-asked my question: “As you sit with this part of you…what does it want right now in this moment?"
A pause, a deep, long inhale, a strong exhale…then these words came out very purposefully and syncopated, “I want a medical leave of absence."
I let it linger out there in the midst…it was a rather large stone thrown into the pond and we needed the ripples to reach the shoreline before proceeding.
“How does it feel to say that out loud?” I asked.
“Scary…really scary…if I do this, it slows down my retirement, I’ll probably get “reassigned again” and it’s embarrassing. I already feel like I've been punished for not being strong enough."
In my mind I’m thinking her logical brain showed up again…trying to solve it and worry about it and figure it all out.
So again, I paused her… and merely repeated, “Scary…really scary."
"Yes…” she exhaled deeply. “Really scary…and really sad, because we are told to rejoice in our weakness, but there’s nothing set up in the system to reward or actually honor it.” She paused a little then continued. “Isn’t is sad that the only acceptable 'excuse' I can find to get the space I need is to ask for a medical leave of absence?”
I don’t know how you feel "overhearing" this conversation. As I said, a similar version happens multiple times a month with various ministers - male and female, across denominations and organizations... some who are in direction with me and many who seem to spill it when I’m in their presence.
All I could think of in the story of Mary and Martha is that Mary chose. She had to make a choice. She had to choose the one thing necessary. It was intentional - knowing she’d feel the disdain and disapproval of her sister, Martha, who was distracted by all the doing. And one of the most beautiful parts of this story to me is that Jesus says of Mary's choice, “It cannot be taken from her."
Take a moment to ask yourself -
- what is stirring in my heart right now after reading this?
- Is it a desire to pray? or perhaps you echo some of this minister's sentiments.
- What do YOU want right now… in this moment? What is stirring within you? Listen in…beyond the top three inches of your body…what is your body saying…and how is the Lord inviting you toward His heart? He wants that too!
Courage on the journey my friends…this is the work…it is hard work. It’s the pathway to living fully alive in the moment!
In the midst of the much and in every moment, peace and good to you and all whom you love and remember, be gentle with yourself.