Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sacred Compass 4: From Brent Bill

Yesterday, I e-mailed J. Brent Bill about his book, Sacred Compass, because I feared being too critical and wanted to hear his point of view. If he were a superstar author or someone whose work I had profound problems with, I would simply state my issues. However, as Bill is a fellow Quaker, and I am more or less on the same page with him when it comes to leadings, I thought I would hear would he had to stay.

Here's part of what he wrote:

"I worried about that some folks might read it [Sacred Compass] as a "step-by-step" book and that was certainly not my intention. As I say in the beginning, this is no 1-2-3 steps to finding God's will. What I was trying to offer were the various ways we can use to uncover our leadings (journaling, walking, cleaning house, etc) which is why I invited so many friends to participate in sharing their ways of getting close to God and listening to the Spirit. Such as my friend Marcella's dancing. A way that would not have occured to me -- nor probably speak much to me. But it does to this delightful Quaker woman and helps her greatly.

I worried a lot about outlining the steps of sensing, waiting, and acting -- but then tried to stress it was not truly linear. That these are all stages that often intwine and weave into a pattern of discernment -- while we act, we sense and wait. And so on. My intention was to show that there are things we can all do in the various stages/movements of discernment and some will speak to us differently than they would other people. Writing works much better for me than dancing like Marcella would. And I suspect that the reverse is true -- though I know she journals as well."

There is a fundamental rhetorical problem in writing about leadings. They tend to be non-linear, not logical and unpredictable. In fact, they jar us into labeling them leadings BECAUSE of their seeming oddness. If God is telling us to eat breakfast in the morning (which he probably is), we won't see that as a leading, because it's normal, it's what we would do anyway. However, if we had an overwhelming feeling that instead of eating breakfast, we should go stand in the middle of the road and hold up a sign saying "Love God," we would probably identify that as a leading because it is such a bizarre and uncomfortable thought.

Yet books, especially explanatory books, are by their nature linear and logical. Their goal is to impart clarity and order, not confusion and chaos.

So how to capture the essence of a leading? Spiritual biography is one way. You can follow a narrative and watch one person's story unfold, thus seeing how a leading works itself out. The problem with that form is its particularity. You're left to yourself to draw conclusions. One person's experience of a leading may be so particular that you can't draw general principles from it. Or it may miss a piece of the overall leading puzzle.

Another way is for the writer to strain to create a language to convey difficult concepts (for example, when Thomas Kelly refers to Jesus as the "hound from heaven" in Testament of Devotion, he's using unconventional terminology to convey his experience), but that can lose people in the process, especially people at the beginning of a journey.

Of course, the answer is that we need to read in multiple genres to get a full sense of what a leading is. Brent's book, he said, is aimed at non-Quakers, and is a good introduction to a way of understanding God's work in the world that may not be familar to people from other faith traditions.

I want to go a little bit afield and ask what spiritual writings have most moved you or what type of writing works best for you?

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