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Jul  2015 16
Nurturing Leaders Attentive To God

ScriptureProverbs 1: 7

The seminary’s mission statement begins by claiming we learn and teach how to be attentive to God. We follow that claim with clauses regarding responsible biblical and theological interpretation and acting with God for the transformation of the world. Huge claims, all! Daunting promises. Personally, the claim to which I return over and over is the opening one:
to learn and teach how to be attentive to God.

Isn’t the fundamental spiritual question in life to sort out who is God and who am I and to keep myself distinct from yet connected to God? No, I’m not in danger of confusing myself with the creator of the 14 billion year old universe, or the guiding hand in the development of life on this planet or most likely on millions of other worlds. I’m not conflating myself with the source of truth, beauty, justice, and love.

But when it comes to doing my own will and cloaking it in or as the will of God, I am sure I’ve been confused—if not always, at least often. I have a lingering fear that I’ve never escaped the echo chamber of my own mind, when it comes to the difference between what I want and God’s will.

This lingering fear has led me to cultivate a suspicion of myself. I’ve cultivated this suspicion in two ways. One way is to seek out voices and points of view that differ from my own. The early 20th century ecumenist and seminary professor, William Adams Brown, wrote about the religious basis for democracy. He said a democracy implies God may be saying something different to you from what God has said to me; we need to listen to each other to get a fuller sense of what God is saying. I believe that. Obviously, it is possible and likely that the voices regarding who God is and what God wants from us will often not agree. A discernment process, in community, will always be necessary. Echo chambers, in my own mind or within a “birds of a feather flock together” social group, will not suffice.

The other way I try to cultivate self-suspicion regarding confusing my voice with God’s voice is to pay attention to the inner emptiness. I’d heard about it for years and touched it many times. But when I went through a divorce in the early 1990s, the abyss and I became much better acquainted. For a time, I felt hollow, like a carved out pumpkin, I told my counselor. The counselor was a very wise, insightful man.

One counseling session, he said to me, “Can I offer you some spiritual advice?”

“Sure.”

“That emptiness you feel? Don’t try to fill it with anything or anyone else. That is where God is, and only God belongs there. Nothing and no one can fittingly fill that space. Anything and anyone but God can’t be who and want you need them to be.”

Anyone who is aware of having inserted drink, work, money, religion, or another person in the empty space and treated it as one’s “ultimate concern” knows of the experience I name here.

In the seminary’s curriculum, I know we do a very good job introducing students to multiple voices, multiple points of view. With the curriculum, students build their capacity to listen to others.

In terms of dealing with that empty place within where God is also found, I’m not sure any curriculum can be designed to require that encounter.

Now, there are oodles of ways to be attentive to God. Self-suspicion and practicing presence with the emptiness within are two ways that are important to me. Other ways will be important for other persons. But surely, we want our spiritual leaders to learn and teach how to be attentive to God. Yes?

Closing prayer: I love this prayer written by Father James Martin, which is inspired by the opening of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.
At least not the last time I checked.

And while you’re at it, God, ... (read the rest of the prayer)

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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