After decades as a pastoral psychotherapist, a person who listens 90% of the time, a new opportunity arose for speaking as serving. For eight years now I have been speaking almost every week for a spiritual community known as Parker United Methodist Church. Now I’m not saying that I do that well, but it is a chance to listen within every week to what is being spoken to me. Then I get to share that inner leading with very receptive people, for better or worse. I know that most people forget what we say within a few moments, but in the act of engaging with people by speaking it really seems we are connecting right then.
The spoken word can be powerful because our hearts and minds, souls and spirits, are interconnected, and words offer a link for experiencing that connection. Words find us in a magical way that defies reason. Some people tell me what they heard me say and I know that I never said that. But that goes to show us that communicating happens in the space between us. The spoken word is a vehicle for communion with something greater than the actual words used.
I had the privilege of speaking about our School for Contemplative Living with a group from First United Methodist Church, Santa Monica, California, before the Parker worship service. I had heard a clear message within, on the morning before speaking, that I am a contemplative missionary, one blessed to share this life with others as a kind of evangelist, or messenger of God. I was also being trained that “becoming a word of God” is the fifth moment of the practice of lectio divina (sacred reading). So right in the middle of a five-day retreat I got to experience what we were learning about in silence on the retreat.
Speaking can be serving because God can use the spoken word to communicate God’s self. But we humans are clearly part of that equation, and when we get in the way with either ego inflation or ego deflation then the message gets blurred. I noticed while speaking to the group that I was walking that thin line between proclaiming with enthusiasm about something wonderful, the unfolding of the School, and the ego saying “Look at me.” As is my way, when I notice the ego wanting to slip into the center I had to say the truth: “I want you all to think I am the greatest.” For some reason my spontaneous confession in the middle of the sharing helps put things back in proper perspective. I have to laugh at that part of me and move on.
Public speaking might not be the best forum to go into depth with my confessing. I could share a lot more of my faults for my own sake because I am like everyone, needing to be known and accepted just as I am. But the careful art of being a messenger of God asks me to focus on the message, not the messenger. So I pause long enough to admit my ego is in the room and then carry on with the message of a contemplative missionary.
When it came time to ask the group some questions about their own best ways to practice the presence of God I was delighted. Then the interchange became even more real than just one person talking and everyone else listening. Then it was their chance to let their speaking become service. Several of the adults and youth spoke up about where they best experience God, like in nature, and then I felt like saying, “Now we’re cooking.” I find that practice of connecting through each person’s sharing of their unique story deeply fulfilling. That’s one reason we do the same in the Parker church worship every week.
That’s what happens in the groups of our School each week too. It happened in both of the groups who met this Saturday morning. People share from their personal experience and that connects us all with our human experience and our spiritual journeys. No one tries to convince others that their spiritual experience is the right way, because every person’s story matters. One person is struggling with the day’s contemplative practice while another person is having a breakthrough, and all of that is important. In our contemplative communities the speaking of each person is serving us all. In this way each person is serving as a contemplative missionary.
Sure, we could recreate the kind of dysfunctional speaking that dominates some human environments like the world of politics, where people try to talk over each other, bash each other, contradict, and try to dominate each other. We could do that thing religion does when one group proclaims how their way is the only right way and anyone who disagrees is a heretic. We could recreate troubled marriages where two people try to out talk each other, or families who use shame to try to control each other. But isn’t there way too much of all that in the world already? Isn’t there a better way?
When speaking becomes serving we hold our words and ideas lightly. We speak with true humility, remembering we really know so little. And when we catch ourselves sounding a little haughty, we call ourselves on it. We set our intention to speak the truth in love, and we keep our ears, minds, and hearts open to the layers of truth others will share. In fact, we know that the spoken word of others can enrich us as a message from God to us. They too can become a word of God.
So after many years of holding my tongue, listening to people’s troubled stories and withholding easy advice, I am now finding a new path: speaking as serving. I am invigorated by the chance to listen for a word of God and to speak that word. I am challenged by daily opportunities to give voice to my truth, and I pray that the words will heal and guide as God uses the right words to serve others and disposes of the rest. I regularly tell my people at Parker: “Listen to what I say until you hear a word or phrase that is Spirit talking to you. Then quit paying attention to my words and let Spirit take you wherever you need to go.”
May it be so, as our speaking becomes service in a School for Contemplative Living and a spiritual community known as Parker United Methodist Church.
For more stories like this read Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.