Monday, September 20, 2010

My Relationship with My Spiritual Advisor


A spiritual advisor can function in that role in several ways--from a formally trained spiritual director who meets with clients in ways not unlike a therapist does to a trusted friend who has consistently on target spiritual insights and freely engages in informal conversation about those kinds of issues. There are some religious traditions that expect those among them most serious about spiritual development and growth to have a regular spiritual director with whom they meet regularly to assess how they are doing in the spiritual growth department. Some denominational groups essentially require their professionals, such as clergy, to see a spiritual director on a set schedule.

Most all of us would benefit from the right spiritual director though not all of us would be comfortable with set formal meetings to discuss our prayer lives and how we’re doing with other spiritual disciplines. Many regular synagogue and church goers, and I’d assume this would also be true of mosque goers, regard their rabbi or pastor or priest or imam as their spiritual advisor. In Christian tradition, the very fact that people come to listen to sermons on a regular basis is an indication that they are seeking spiritual advice at some level, and if they need something more from the pastor in that regard, a personal conversation is arranged.

The pastor who is willing to serve as a spiritual advisor, especially in a one-to-one arrangement, has to be very careful not to try to become a mental health therapist. It is shallow and destructive to tell someone who has a clinical depression that all she or he needs to do is to beef up the prayer life or to get more involved in social ministry to those in need. The uncredentialed clergyperson who attempts to function as a licensed mental health professional can do more harm than good and may, in fact, be guilty of malpractice in the eyes of the law.

Ministers should limit their advice to clearly spiritual matters and refer parishioners who would be better treated by a licensed mental health professional to that person. Spiritual antidotes will not solve every problem that comes along.

There are a few churches around town that always seem to be running a contest to see who can put the most trite, cornball slogan about faith or spirituality on their sign boards. I think you can subscribe to these services that provide you these slogans. To me, they’re offensive. My least favorite shows up on several boards from time to time; I first saw it over in Claymont years ago when we first moved to Wilmington. It read: “Too Blessed to Be Depressed.” Having had parishioners with debilitating clinical depression through the years and some family members with various degrees of depression to deal with, that message just burned me up because of its utter ignorance and the insensitivity of it. The implication is that if you’ll just focus on all God has done for you, you can’t possibly be depressed; and the clinically depressed person may well know all about life’s blessings that have come to her or him and still be overtaken by this insidious mental illness.

Some of you know that I pulled off the road at once and called that church and left a message on their voice mail telling them that their message was rude and insensitive and that it hurt all the churches trying to work with real people with real problems like depression--often in concert with a mental health professional. I told them if they wanted to hear more about my concerns to call me, that my name was Bishop Martin Luther and that my church was on Reformation Boulevard.

Just kidding. I told them who I was and what the name of my church is. Carson said he’d never be able to show his face in Claymont again, and some of you here decided you had a nutcase on your hands. And you’ve still got him!

Dear friends, all the prayer in the world isn’t likely to cure clinical depression. It surely may help, but more is needed. So a spiritual advisor would encourage someone who was clinically depressed to see a physician who could prescribe anti-depressants to help the person get on her or his way back to life without darkness and emotional loads too heavy to bear. The spiritual advisor would encourage the person to pray if possible; those who are clinically depressed often can’t pray or do much of anything else that requires mental or emotional energy. The depression has depleted all of that. In the extreme, that person can’t even get out of bed so sending her or him off with a challenge to pray more is ill-informed and potentially dangerous.

It is dangerous to promise that God will heal those who pray and do whatever else the spiritual advisor suggests as curative. When those don’t work, the depressed person may be thrown into even greater despair; life becomes no longer worth living. We are never too blessed to be depressed, and we are never too depressed to be blessed--though we may not be able to feel the blessings at all, even if we had sensed them all our lives up to the point that the depression moved in and began trying to destroy the healthy emotional part of who we are.

In general, we in our tradition, if we have a tradition, don’t have nearly as many spiritual exercises to toss out to people seeking a stronger spiritual life as do some groups who have strongly emphasized spiritual disciplines and may have a whole list of options for you, ranging from acts of penitence, to walking the mandala, to praying the rosary, to daily attendance at mass.

A pastor like me has many fewer options to offer. I hope the sermons always have some measure of sound spiritual advice in them--even if the advice that week is to ponder an answer to complex religious question. I may be able to say that the approach to spirituality I see in the person’s life who seeks my counsel typically doesn’t work for progressives. I may suggest prayer and/or meditation. I may suggest regularly gathering with the community. If I’d had a chance to belong to a church like Silverside many years before I met Silverside, no one would have to have told me to make attending there a priority in my life.

As the pastor, I could remind a seeker how much I care about and value her or him and how naturally it is to be embraced in this community. None of us looks forward to the difficult times in life, but when they come this community will surround you. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and you younger folk who are the Silverside Church of tomorrow, you need to learn from the old hands what they have done so faithfully to support a brother or sister in this family when life brings pain. Food may be a part of the picture; flowers may be too. A handwritten letter of concern or sympathy has carried many of our members through tough times, and I’m sorry young techies, a quick text on your cell or a one-liner on someone’s Facebook Wall just isn’t the same, not by the stretch of any imagination.

Silverside folk have always had at least a core crew who happily gave the gift of personal presence with those who were struggling or hurting or sick or depressed or afraid. When the guard changes, and someday we know it will have to, I do not want that kind of careful concern to disappear.

Sometimes, someone having a spiritual struggle doesn’t need to pray or up her or his pledge; sometimes, the most healing action a pastor can suggest is to do something for someone who is hurting--not necessarily someone they may know in the church, but rather a stranger in need who may not welcome your efforts to lighten that stranger’s load.

Dr. Wayne Oates, the great pastoral counselor, wrote a book, one of many, and the one I have in mind at the moment carried the title, When Religion Gets Sick. This is what Dr. Oates had to say about that in summary fashion:

When I use the word “sick,” I am referring to a specific functional breakdown. When religion is sick, it massively hinders the basic functions of life. Malfunction, then, is the criterion of sickness. In other words, the word “sick,” is not used in some global, vague, or moralistic sense here. It refers to specific situations in which particular people suffer major failures of functioning in the conduct of their lives because of religious preoccupations and stumbling blocks.

If you are blocked or sick spiritually, a spiritual advisor might be able to help you. It’s at least worth the effort to see.


In determining who will be your spiritual advisor, there are three requirements.

  • That prospective spiritual advisor needs to be fully sane. Sanity is difficult to assess at times. What the spiritually engaged, spiritually mature advisor may tell you could be precisely what you need to do to move along on your spiritual journey, but it could sound like something nutty to you. For example, think about how the rich young ruler felt when he came to Jesus to find out how to move toward greater spiritual maturity, and Jesus skipped right over all the rigid Jewish laws that he thought he was supposed to keep to a tee and, instead, said, “The solution is easy. Go and sell everything you have that makes you rich and give it to the poor. You’ll become one of the most spiritually mature people in Judaism.” The man said to Jesus, “This makes me very sad. I’m a ruler. If I give up my money, I give up the basis of my prestige and power. This is money I inherited from my father. There’s no way I can just give it all away.” Jesus said, “I understand your attachment, but you asked me how to grow spiritually, and I told you. If you can’t bring yourself to do it, you won’t progress at this time. Not all rich folk love their money more than they love God, but you do; and as long as you love it and trust it more than you love and trust God, you’re stuck.” That sounded INsane to the rich young ruler, and he left the conversation more sad than when he came. That advice wasn’t acceptable to him. To him, sanity meant taking care of the money that had been entrusted to him and, perhaps, sharing some of it along the way; but giving it all away was out of the question.
  • Your prospective spiritual advisor should be part of a spiritual movement known to be a healthy one, and not every Christian denomination or movement, large or small, is healthy or sane by any means. She or he shouldn’t be a cult leader, but rather an experienced fellow seeker; otherwise, one day she or he may tell you that if you wish to be truly spiritual you need to drink poison Koolaid or start taking elementary school aged children as your sex partners.
  • With all due respect to the often positive and insightful Indigenous American approaches to a healthy spirituality, I’d say you should be looking for someone who will give you advice about how to boost your spiritual life that doesn’t involve the use of any substance such as peyote. You also don’t want to try to emulate a spiritual exercise with which you are unfamiliar; if you don’t know what to do when there’s not enough oxygen in the sweat lodge, then you shouldn’t go in there to begin with.

One thing you should not worry about is the potential spiritual advisor’s presumed level of achievement or accomplishment by the standards of a materialistic world. The advisor with the best advice for you might not be the doctorally trained pastor at your city’s most prominent church; instead, she might be an older women without many of this world’s goods, living in an assisted living apartment in a retirement community. You may be much more advanced and prominent in the eyes of the world that the best person available for offering you advice about your spirituality. The spiritual advisor for you may not have written a slew of books or even a single book, but instead might be a chaplain in a small hospital who preaches to a small congregation of twenty or so people on the Sundays she or he is not on call at the hospital.

Your spiritual advisor, the right one for you, probably doesn’t charge you a fee for sharing insights and hunches with you, and that is what they are, hunches. There is no one size fits all approach to spiritual health and maturity...and no guarantees.

Sometimes a spiritual advisor can’t do us any good at all while we are keeping someone or some habit or some self-defeating attitude in our lives. There are people and situations that will poison us until we have no health at any level and no chance of finding our way to health as long as that person or situation remains. The core people we keep in our lives have to want health and wholeness for us as much as we want them for ourselves. The responsibilities to which we commit ourselves have to enhance rather than tear down our efforts at spiritual growth if we want it.

An honest willingness to keep growing as long as we live on this earth is a prerequisite to this whole undertaking; otherwise, there’s not much point in worrying about or even contemplating the possibility of a healthier spirituality.

King Nebuchadnezzar, not a follower of the God of Israel, had several young Israelites in his prison. The King began to have very troubling dreams, and the royal dream interpreters on his staff weren’t offering interpretations to his dreams that made any sense to him. He grew more and more troubled because he had a sense that the dreams were trying to get an ominous message through to him that he just couldn’t comprehend.

He heard from one of his advisors that there was an Israelite in prison, a YOUNG man at that, who’d been interpreting dreams for some of the prison staff that were right on target every time. The King could have said, “I’m not listening to any Israelite and a kid at that!” Ultimately, that is not what he said. In time, he called for Daniel and, more or less, humbled himself by baring his soul to a man he kept locked away from freedom for no real reason other than his ethnicity. But Daniel was able to interpret the King’s dreams. There was good news and bad news, but perhaps the dream would help the King prepare for tough times to come and be drawn to the God of the Israelites who was concerned enough about the polytheistic king to warn him of impending trouble through a dream. The King could have missed out all together had he said, “I will only talk with someone who has graduated from the Royal Dream Interpretation Academy,” even though their graduates already on his staff hadn’t been able to help him a whip stitch.

The National Catholic Reporter has reported that President Obama has what amounts to a “spiritual cabinet.” The person with whom he has the most frequent contact on matters spiritual is Joshua DuBois, who heads the President’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and Neighborhood Partnerships.

DuBois sends daily devotionals to Obama's Blackberry--often a Bible verse or an excerpt from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, or a snippet from the works of theologians Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, particular favorites of the president.

He attends worship services most frequently at the chapel near Camp David, and he hears there the sermons of Chaplain Carey Cash, the nephew of the late Johnny Cash. They have little contact apart from seeing each other at church.

When the President wants someone with whom he can pray, this same news source reported that Obama will usually call fundamentalist Florida mega church pastor, Joel Hunter, or Sharon Watkins, President of the Disciples of Christ denomination, a denomination with liberal leanings to be sure. So, there’s a real balance there--female/male, liberal/conservative. Maybe it does him good to hear prayers from both perspectives even though if the prayers were actually bringing about change by persuading God to act in this way or that, the prayers of those two clergypersons would cancel each other out. Maybe not on every issue, but on many issues, what one of those people would want the other would be against; and the both of them would hope that God saw things the way she, Watkins, or he, Hunter, saw them.

Our President is a powerful leader with heavy burdens on his shoulders every waking moment. His background has taught him to seek out spiritual support in the challenging times, and he does.


One of the most compelling stories about someone seeking the counsel of a spiritual advisor in the Bible tells us how the Ethiopian eunuch conversing with Philip quite by coincidence about how to find his way into the group of people who were devoted to the teachings of Jesus. This moving story is told in the book of Acts, which is concerned to show how the spirit of God is actively involved in the lives of individuals and groups, leading them and directing them.

Last week we talked about the Good Samaritan and how the man who was beaten up and left to die by the side of the road experienced this unfortunate act of violence at least in part because he went down from Jerusalem toward Jericho alone; it was a dangerous road, and attacks and robberies evidently weren’t uncommon. That was the route he chose to take, probably going home after worshipping at the great Temple in Jerusalem.

This week, coincidentally, someone else is going down from Jerusalem following another wilderness road; this one led to Gaza. As I mentioned last week, any time a faithful Jew was going to Jerusalem, she or he spoke of going UP to Jerusalem, and any time someone spoke of leaving Jerusalem, she or he was always going DOWN. So the writer of Acts tells us that a messenger from God gave minister Phillip the word that God wanted him to head down that specific wilderness road, the one moving down from Jerusalem as it reached finally for Gaza.

There is no indication that he knew why God wanted him to head out in that direction; he simply trusted that if God led him to move in the direction, God must have some responsibility waiting for him, Phillip, and he’d know soon enough what it was.

God has often and long been understood in Jewish and Christian tradition as working in precisely in this manner. When God led Abraham to head out in search of the Promised Land, the biblical writer makes a point of saying that he, Abraham, went out and began to travel, not knowing where he was going.

I think holy hunches are huge parts of how we find our way along the spiritual pathway we follow. I don’t buy much into the idea that God sends some sensitive soul down a road expressly because a person in need is going to be on that road, and unless we take that particular route we will miss helping the person in need standing somewhere along the road.

I’m more inclined to think that God lures or the power of God’s love is so stirring that we’re drawn to join up with a group already doing some ministry that appeals to us, and we kinda know if we join in we’re going to get to help some of the people who are struggling with whatever issue the group we join specializes in trying to ease or alleviate.

Phillip in our story feels compelled to start traveling the road toward Gaza, and when he does he comes upon a high official from the courts of the Ethiopian Queen Candace. The writer of the book of Acts makes a point of telling readers that the official was a eunuch. Often kings had men who would be attending the queen castrated so that there could be no funny business between the queen and her male servants. Why a female sovereign would castrate a male in service to her, if indeed she’s the one who ordered it, could be so that she never had to worry about any potential sexual overtones or involvement in her relationship with the men who served in her cabinet. This official was in charge of the treasury of the whole nation of Ethiopia; he was obviously trusted a great deal.

He had been to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. He was not a Jew, but he was drawn to the Hebrew religion and, evidently, to Christianity that had grown out of it. He was reading from the prophet Isaiah, but not understanding what he was reading. Phillip walked up to him even though he was a VIP and asked if he could help in any way. The leader said that he’d be pleased to have some help understanding the prophet Isaiah. He said that he wasn’t getting much of anything from what he was reading.

Here we have a short-term opportunity for some spiritual advising to take place. The man was eager to learn, and Phillip was more than available to help in the specific way he was asked.

The initial request was for help understanding the message of the prophet.

The eunuch ironically had come upon a passage in the prophecy of Isaiah. In its original context, the passage referred to Israel itself. It was not uncommon for writers in what became Hebrew scripture to refer to their nation as an individual human being as was the case in what the eunuch read:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.

Some in the early Christian community said that this sounded like Jesus’ own experience in that he was executed, and along the way various people involved in his execution had attempted to humiliate him.

I have a sense that the eunuch was stuck on that word “humiliation” because of his physical condition. Eunuchs might have highly responsible professional positions, but the mutilation to their bodies made them personally, in the minds of more than a few of their fellow citizens--whether they were Ethiopian or Jewish--freaks. And even though most eunuchs were castrated against their will--many of them when they were children--there was still some measure of humiliation they carried with them for life.

The eunuch wanted Phillip to help him understand the importance of someone in the Jewish religion who, though humiliated, still was loved by God and remembered respectfully by those who came after him and even wrote about him. I gather that led to a rather long conversation during which time they began to ride together in the chariot. I’d suspect that a high ranking official wouldn’t drive himself but would have had a driver, and by the time they passed by a rare body of water along that wilderness road , the eunuch said, “If I’m truly acceptable in the community that follows Jesus, baptize me in this water.” Phillip was more than ready to do so.

Sometimes we come upon someone who, right under our noses, is struggling to get some spiritual advice; and if we have some sound advice to offer, we can become short-term spiritual advisors.

In the case of the eunuch, he only needed some information and clarification. He was already on some kind of spiritual journey and had learned to read Hebrew--maybe originally for business, maybe not--and was reading scripture when Phillip found him. The fact that he was in possession of his own scroll shows that he was a person of means because the typical person, even the typical Jew, couldn’t afford her or his own biblical scrolls.

The eunuch represents anyone and everyone who needs the support, presence, and involvement of a spiritual advisor in her or his life--whether short or long term. Phillip represents the person clearly on the spiritual journey who is both capable and willing to offer spiritual advice. At various times in our lives, we who are on a seeker’s journey are both of these men since, regardless, of how mature or far along we are, we need the encouragement of a spiritual advisor too.

I’ve been at this task of spiritual seeking a long time, and as a pastor I’ve been offering spiritual advice for quite a while as well; but I’ve never outgrown my need FOR spiritual advice and spiritual support. The person with a word of spiritual advice could show up unexpectedly and out of nowhere, as Phillip did for the eunuch, or I might seek out spiritual advice and support when I’m stuck or isolated. In a church like ours, we’ll accept any seekers as they are, answer questions if we can, but we’ll without a doubt ride along with you in your chariot, even if there are those who won’t, and celebrate with you your own spiritual insights and growth.


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