Friday, September 26, 2008

The Sacred Compass

I am reading Quaker J. Brent Bill's The Sacred Compass, the book we are using this year in our spiritual formation group at Stillwater Meeting.

Bill's compass image is a variation on the oft-repeated claim that "God has a plan for your life." Bill softens the idea of a rigid "plan" or map that tells you to go .8 miles, then take a left turn, etc. by likening God's influence in one's life to that of a compass, which is a more imprecise tool. If we follow our sacred compass, which is the Holy Spirit, we will be led by God in the right direction, but not necessarily along a predetermined path to a precise point. Instead, we will have to keep using the compass and recalibrating as we go. The implication is that we will be more engaged in a journey that is more open-ended than if we had a detailed map, though the goal is to end up where God leads.

In chapter 1, Bill explains the Quaker concept of the "way opening," which is the idea that God is revealing his will to us, and that if we trust it and follow it, obstacles will fade away. Key to the concept of way opening is waiting for God's guidance, often constructed as not getting "ahead" of where you are being led. The idea is to take a step in trust, then to stop and wait to hear what the next step will be, rather than assuming that if step A is here, then step B "must" be there. "Part of following way opening is learning to be less hasty," Bill writes.

The central conceit or metaphor in this chapter is that those of us following the sacred compass --trying to discern God's will ---are pilgrims, (which I imagine means 'not tourists'). To me, a tourist would be traveling through a place superficially, looking for pleasure and novelty whereas a pilgrm would be journeying to a destination where he or she hopes to find healing, redemption or revelation.

Brent lists characteristics of a pilgrim: Pilgrims learn from other pilgrims (often spiritual leaders from history); pilgrims can take many paths (Bill quotes Proverbs: "In all ways acknowledge him and He shall direct thy paths" (not path); pilgrims live with imagination, trust in God, pray, keep moving, see God in the details and travel in community with other pilgrims. The key idea is that God is present and active in our daily lives and that we can directly access and be guided by him.

Much of this chapter will be very familiar to Quakers.

I'm interested to see what else Bill has to say and to compare his understanding of following the Holy Spirit (or sacred compass) with the idea that rather than being focused solely on God's plan (or plans) for us, we should be looking around the world to see where God is at work and to join God in that work.

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