What is Spiritual Direction?

Although this may be your first formal introduction, you may have already received or given spiritual direction. Perhaps you’ve consulted a pastor or spiritual leader for advice. Maybe you made time and space to listen to a friend. “Spiritual direction”, in my opinion, is a fancy term for something we do or look for all the time: companionship.

Spiritual direction is spiritual companionship, not clinical counseling.

Spiritual direction is holy listening, not a bible study.

Spiritual direction is meant to be nourishment for your soul, not a one-size-fits-all formula.

This chart is a very helpful comparison between spiritual direction, discipleship, counseling, and other similar relationships. There is no universal solution to life’s questions and therefore no superior approach.

“The environment of spiritual direction, then, is affirming and encouraging, but it is also a place of authenticity. In spiritual direction we look at the truth of our present situation and experience. The question asked is not “What should be happening in my life?” but “What is happening in my life?” We look for God here, now, because the place where we are in our lives is the place where we find God.”

Alice Fryling

Who are spiritual directors?

Some spiritual directors are trained through specialty programs or master degrees and others appear in the form of untrained, but sage friends or leaders. Some receive payment for their time and have warm, inviting offices. Others generously offer to listen for no formal compensation in settings like living rooms or coffee shops. Spiritual direction can happen in groups or among individuals. There are all types of combinations.

One common thread in each combination is the dedication of time and space to listen. Spiritual directors listen to seekers. Seekers learn to hear and listen to God, the ultimate “spiritual director.” (Yes, this may sound corny, but it’s true!)

Meetings may begin with an open ended question like, “What is the state of your soul?” or “What has caused life to pour into you, recently?” Some meetings are filled with silence. That’s ok, too. Sometimes (most of the time?) we don’t have all the answers.

“The opportunity to tell our story opens us to hear God’s story more deeply – God’s presence and participation in our lives and in the life of the world. In God all human stories connect and when we participate in spiritual direction, we seem to notice more of the connections.”

Jeannette A. Bakke

Is spiritual direction a new practice?

Spiritual direction is far from new. There are examples in Christian scripture and throughout church history.

It’s also not exclusively Christian and there’s no particular denominational affiliation. Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and other eastern religions can practice spiritual direction.

“Spiritual direction is a way of companioning people as they seek to look closely, through the eyes of their hearts, at the guidance and transforming work of God in their lives. It’s a practice that began in the early years of Christianity when people followed the desert mothers and fathers out to the wilderness to ask them how to know God. Over the years, spiritual direction has appeared in many faith traditions. It was kept alive in the Christian faith mainly through the Roman Catholic Church, but today the Protestant church is rediscovering it. People throughout the Christian church, including those of an evangelical orientation, are experiencing again the gifts that God gives to his people through the loving listening and the gentle guidance of spiritual directors.”

Alice Fryling

What does this mean for me?

Have you wondered where God is leading or inviting you? Do you have questions regarding faith or spirituality? Do you feel confident in your faith life, but might be curious for a new approach or perspective? Are you interested in new approaches to prayer or spiritual disciplines? Do you have a desire to nurture your soul?

If you felt drawn to one or any number of these questions, spiritual direction is for you!

Looking for other spiritual formation resources?

This was a brief introduction, so just in case you’re still curious:

What I Read in 2019

This year I read 67 books, thanks to both the last semester of seminary and a summer of job hunting. I listened to a couple through my library’s audiobook app but for most I picked up a “real” copy.

There’s only a few days left in December and I doubt I’ll get around to finishing off the last couple books in my queue and reaching my 70-book goal. Oh well!

In addition to reading many wonderful books, Aaron and I were able to visit the homes of authors I grew up loving, Robert Frost and Louisa May Alcott. Each home was beautiful. The Orchard House, Alcott’s home, was by far my favorite tour; if you’re in the area you have to make time to visit. (Both gave us free admission with military IDs.)

We stopped by one of Robert Frost’s homes in Shaftbury, VT this fall.

A Note on Theology Books

Earlier this year an old friend asked me to recommend a few books on Christian theology. She was looking for an overview, of sorts. I recommended some authors and theologians I liked in that moment, and a book or two. But honestly? Her question stumped me. Did a summary of Christian theology truly exist?

After I replied with my answers, I kept thinking about it. Each author or editor comes with their own set of biases. This means that all theology is accompanied by an adjective. (Western theology, feminist theology, reformed theology, etc.) There is no default theology, no hard answers that can’t be argued a hundred different ways, even in orthodox Christian theology. Therefore, it is difficult to select only two or three books to summarize thousands of years of history, culture, and academic study.

All that to say, if you’re looking to learn more about scripture and the concepts inside without a degree program, pick a book or author you’re already familiar with and read their appendix or bibliography in the back of the book. Read similar authors and definitely read the work of those they disagree with. Go get your toes wet and don’t be scared to make a splash!

A “shelfie”.

My Top 10 Books

Picking favorite books is like trying to choose a favorite dog meme: practically impossible. 10 of my favorite books (in no specific order) of the year include:

We visited Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, MA this summer.

Other Noteworthy Authors

  • Mike McHauge
  • Sarah Bessey
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • John M. Perkins
  • Serene Jones
  • Phyllis Trible
  • Margaret Atwood

Find the whole list here on my Goodreads. I have different categories (or “shelves”) on my profile that might help you find your next read according to the particular topics I frequently read.

As for my 2020 goal, I think I’ll start with 50 books and work upwards if I happen to keep the momentum. One of my favorite instagram accounts made a goal to read more, if not exclusively, women and authors of color in 2019. I’d like to do the same in 2020.

Do you have any reading goals in 2020?

Since this is the last post of 2019, here’s a quick recap of the year:

This year has been a memorable year here on this blog. It will be hard to beat. A big thank you to all my readers over this last decade, either here or other blogs I’ve created. You make me smile!

Happy new year!

Our First Year in the Episcopal Church

For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?

In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction. 

Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”

In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking. 

The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns. 

Flowers we brought home from our Easter service.

If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)

Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions

This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition. 

We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.

“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.” 

— Ben Irwin, 11 Things I Love About the Episcopal Church

Worship as a Lifestyle

There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.

I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.

Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.

Eucharist Every Week

Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)

Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)

On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.

At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.

These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!

Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences: 

*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition. 

Weekend Diaries in Vermont

Since spending our (secret) honeymoon in the middle of Vermont, we’ve loved finding weekends where we can visit again, especially in the fall. Peak season for autumn colors is usually early to mid October.

I’d say we are still Vermont-amateurs, meaning there’s many places we’ve yet to visit, but we’ve certainly crossed off a few classic sights. We’ve taken the back roads a few times while in Vermont and have yet to regret it.

Southern Vermont

Hogback Mountain

Initially I wanted to find a good hike in the area (of which I’m sure there are plenty!) but we decided to “settle” for the 100-mile view at Hogback Mountain. This is technically a glorified pullout with a large gift shop. Parking can be found along the road or at a lot just past the restaurant. The view is incredible! Pictures don’t do it justice.

Dot’s Diner

We waited only a long line that poured out on the street. Fortunately the weather was beautiful, sunny and crisp. The waitress sarcastically attributed the long wait times to “horrible food and the worst service.” The food was certainly worth the wait and seemed like we’d known the waitresses forever. I recommend the Berry Berry Pancakes!

Bennington Potters

This shop caught my eye while researching the area and I’m so glad we went. I love pottery and all things home decor. You can browse the shop and take a self-guided your through the workshop! They’ve got beautiful pieces for kitchen, dining, and beyond. I scooped up the cutest dish brush with holder in the signature blue and white glaze.

Robert Frost Stone House Museum

Shaftsbury is slightly north of Bennington a few minutes. You’ll find the Stone House tucked away on a quiet road. The property is charming and well kept. The second floor was closed for renovations while we were there, otherwise we enjoyed learning more about Robert Frost’s life and time in Vermont. (Ask for the military discount for free admission, if that’s you!)

Bennington Monument

Another 5 star view without a hike. (Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking!) Similar to the Washington Monument, you access the top of this monument. The view was fantastic. (Ask for the military discount for free admission!) The neighborhood surrounding the property is also picturesque. The “Old First” Congregational Church is down the street, if that interests you. We didn’t make it there but several other suggested we stop by.

A view from the top of the Bennington Monument.

Readsboro Inn

We spent one night at the Readsboro Inn, which was a great stop nestled in the hills and trees at the bottom of Green Mountain State Forest. It’s a mom-and-pop, no frills accommodation and the only restaurant and bar in town. The owner, Stephanie, is kind and welcoming. The drive in and out of Readsboro is worth the stay.

Took a back road and found a local park with a beautiful view.

Covered Bridges

These bridges are all over Vermont and we drove through or stopped at a few. Pictured below is the Paper Mill Village Bridge near Bennington. I was happy to follow a little trail down to the water’s edge to snap a photo or ten.

Central Vermont

Downtown Woodstock

Woodstock’s downtown is easy to access and similar to other New England downtown settings. Quaint shops with art or boutique items. If I came back I would spend more time exploring other areas. If you have suggestions, let me know!

Pretty candles from a shop in downtown Woodstock.

Woodstock Farmer’s Market

We celebrated our wedding anniversary with sandwiches from the Woodstock Farmer’s Market. Aaron recommends #27 Russell’s Big Hustle. If you want to stay and eat, there’s a small creek running behind the building with picnic tables. A fun spot with mostly overpriced groceries.

Mount Tom Hike

This is a fairly easy hike with a beautiful view of Woodstock. Near the top you’ll encounter some rocky bits that won’t accommodate a stroller. Other than that it’s family-friendly. It took us approximately an hour from start to finish.

Sugarbush Farm

In case you’re itching for some fresh maple syrup and cheese, the Sugarbush Farm is a delicious spot where you can sample all their varieties of house cheese and syrup. There’s a family-friendly trail through the trees and even a small chapel to visit. Originally built by an owner for his own nuptials, the chapel has hosted many weddings. There’s a sweet photo album of all the couples who tied the knot there. Before you leave, head to the barn in the back to learn more about how they harvest and produce the maple syrup. We’ll be coming back.

Manchester and Montpelier are on my list for our next Vermont adventure. And then maybe even farther north.

Any tips for our next weekend trip?

The Handmaid’s Tale: The Ethics of Surrogacy

This post follows this one.

The driving force behind the fictional theocracy of Gilead is surrogacy. Young, fertile handmaids are forced to bear children for other couples desperate for a family of “their own” to fulfill the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Most handmaids are unable to fully consent to this practice considering the elements of oppression at play.

The ethical concerns of surrogacy don’t stop at the border of Gilead. In it’s many forms, surrogacy has been known to offer children to infertile heterosexual and LGBTQ+ couples, often crossing international borders. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon emotional photos like this or this. Or maybe you heard about Kim Kardashian’s surrogate pregnancies?

Advocating for Surrogacy

A quick google search will reveal enough positive experiences to exhaust a box of kleenex. Here are some reasons some couples may be interested:

  • Surrogacy may be the only opportunity for those reluctant to become pregnant or infertile or ill heterosexual couples or LGBTQ+ couples to have a genetically related family.
  • Some argue surrogacy is no different than adoption, wet-nursing, or alternative reproductive methods like in vitro fertilization.
  • Surrogacy is suggested to be even better than adoption since it creates a genetic bond between at least one parent.
  • Participants in altruistic surrogacy have personal relationships and may not choose to include a formal contract or compensation. (For example, a woman may enjoy pregnancy and choose to donate her body/time/energy to support the reproductive hopes of friends.)

Challenging the Practice

The opposite of altruistic surrogacy is commercial surrogacy. This approach includes a contract and compensation, and therefore a customer. This presents several concerns for all parties involved.

Sincere Consent

It doesn’t matter if the surrogate mother is a personal friend or hired service, the relationship between all “parents” involved is a complicated one. The request of the couple is intimate and not only physically invasive, but may also be emotionally invasive, for the surrogate. This relationship may be subject to coercion due to emotional ties to the child (or idea of a child) developed by either party at any stage. Personal guilt, finances, issues of self-esteem, or other psychological or physical variables may be used to manipulate the other party.

Reproductive Tourism

Similar to the concern listed above, surrogacy that incorporates international borders also highlights the complexity of sincere, informed consent. Those seeking to be parents may be sincere in their hope but sourcing the right (perhaps immediately available, most affordable, etc.) surrogate may pose challenges. Surrogates who have not had access to adequate education or financial resources are vulnerable to what some researchers dub as neocolonialism. What type of pre/post natal healthcare will the surrogate be provided? What is an appropriate rate of compensation? Will the surrogate have an advocate during and after the pregnancy? How do we prevent poor women from being exploited?

Commercialized Reproduction

Exploitation is a real concern, especially in light of commercialized reproduction practices. Feminist Andrea Dworkin likens modern surrogacy to prostitution, saying it allows women to “sell reproductive capacities the same way old-time prostitutes sold sexual ones but without the stigma of whoring because there is no penile intrusion.” It can be argued that surrogacy, like prostitution, is not immoral since it can involve compensation and does not necessarily require a strong emotional bond.

From another angle, when reproductive services are bought and sold, the child produced becomes a commodity. Both the women who give birth and the child she delivers can be commercialized and depersonalized. Children could easily be seen as a product, something to be satisfied or dissatisfied with.

Tangled Parental Relationships

Surrogacy poses a challenge to parental roles and kinship. Ethicists may argue adoption is a response to unfortunate circumstances. On the other hand, surrogacy is the intentional disruption in family ties. There are many ways surrogacy is practiced. The child produced by a surrogate using third party egg and sperm, later cared for by parents genetically unrelated could have as many as five different “parents.” The definition of parenthood becomes fluid. The child’s identity may also be challenged as they grow older. Who am I? Will I ever know my true parents? Is it possible I could become romantically interested in my genetic sibling without knowing?

The characters in Atwood’s novel are not bound by personal relationships or contracts but by reproductive slavery. Yet, the book does shine an interesting light on what it means to be a mother. Which woman is the true surrogate? How do the ancient and modern translators of the Bible interrupt our understanding of the text, specifically Genesis 30:1-3? What relationship does surrogacy have with colonialism?

If you are a child born from surrogacy or you have participated in surrogacy in some form, what have your experiences been like?

I do not endorse everything these authors have written but I did find these sources interesting and helpful on the topic of surrogacy: