By Christine Hall
A FRIEND BICYCLED 2,700 MILES THIS SUMMER along the Continental Divide. In a newspaper feature piece, she described a key question that carried her through the challenges:
“When doing endurance races, I have a question I ask myself when I want to quit: Am I in danger or just uncomfortable? If I’m just uncomfortable, I tell myself to keep going. Things will get better. And they usually do.” 1
“Am I in danger, or just uncomfortable?” is a really useful question for anyone committed to a long-term effort to stretch physically. The beauty of the question is that it applies spiritually too, because growth in a God-centered life asks us to build faithful, trusting soul-muscle strength for the long haul.
Today, I’ll zoom in on the tricky topic of how we talk about God with each other. In authentic encounter with people sharing diverse experiences of the Mystery of the divine, it helps to recognize when personal discomfort might stretch us, without danger. I celebrate when our differences can help us mature in faith and trust in God’s efforts within and between us.
How do you respond to a mix of faith language and experience? How comfortable are you with others’ sharing about God in their own way, even under the Christian umbrella? What terms shut you down, or have you wanting to flee in distress? What might happen if you asked, “Am I in danger, or merely uncomfortable?” and listen for God’s inner response?
I am completely, enthusiastically, a cheerleader for being uncomfortable spiritually in non-dangerous “stretches” with others exploring their experience of the Life and Power of the Holy. The reflections that follow rise from what I’ve noticed through seven years, watching people stretch and grow in Way of the Spirit, a retreat and learning program from the wisdom of Quaker spirituality.
Growth of soul requires courage. We gather on retreat from many different faith communities—some who worship in quiet waiting, others with pastors and heartfelt hymns; some who are at ease with Buddhist or Hindu practices and terms, others traveling with Jesus. Way of the Spirit includes Evangelical Christians and people somewhat allergic to the Bible and Christ-centered terminology. Both have expressed fear of “going there” with these “other” folks. This unlikely mix is an improbable core feature of the Way of the Spirit program. Something beautiful happens in our small groups as people share their own stories, in their own terms, listening and questioning and pondering.
I admit that I thrive on dialogue across faith divisions. I grew up in a vibrant, social-justice leaning, Jesuit, Roman Catholic community. But for thirty years, I have worshiped among Quakers sitting in silence waiting for inspiration to share the day’s message. Alongside seventeen or more Christian denominations, I thoroughly enjoyed graduate school in theology and ministry. I’ve developed a sincere appreciation for diverse religious paths.
However, when I began working with Evangelical guest presenters in Way of the Spirit, we discovered we have different “hot buttons” around God-language. I may still cringe inwardly at the use of male pronouns for the Divine. As an adult, reading an “inclusive” Bible was the first time I could engage most Christian scripture without wincing. Yes, I’ve learned that for others, God as “He” is intimate and endearing. I recognized I had “baggage” I needed to unpack, an inner woundedness that I have tended, in order to better hear how other faithful people relate to the Holy Mystery.
An Evangelical Quaker guest presenter shared his “hot button” term that surprised me. When someone uses the phrase “the Divine” for God, this teacher “usually had something to say about it.” We laughed, since no word had been said to me, who uses it frequently. Turns out for this Biblical scholar, “the Divine” is an academic term, aiming to be objective and dispassionate. It means “not involved,” distant, and not in relationship. I had to laugh again, since when I use it, “The Divine” feels more inviting, beyond the sectarian limits of the label, “God.” What potential for misunderstanding!
“Discomfort” as a stretch into Grace
There’s a model Way of the Spirit offers to foster the “stretch” into listening and conversation with people using very different language about the Holy. It comes from Eric Law’s efforts with multicultural faith communities2. Visualize a smaller circle inside a larger one. They represent “boundaries” around our comfort level with a group. Inside the inner circle is the “safe zone,” where we are completely at ease with the other people in the group and how we interact. Probably, we know what to expect, and it may look and sound a lot like “us.” We belong. The situation is not dangerous at all. Outside the outer circle is a “Freak Out Zone” where the “others” are so different from our expectations or ideals, and so far beyond our comfort level that it feels very dangerous. Interaction with these folks provokes a “get me outta here” flight or flight reaction.
Of course, on retreat, we want to avoid freaking out. It’s not necessary or helpful to our soul work. Way of the Spirit offers pretty gentle guidance for exploring your life with God. Our efforts focus on the space between the inner and outer circles, neither the safe zone nor the fear zone. We call it the “Grace Margin.” What we do on retreat is intentionally stretch into “discomfort,” intentionally leaning into or staying with what may feel unsafe and see what the Spirit might do with us.
We begin by mutually defining the Grace Margin with community guidelines for respecting each other in specific ways. We agree to speak in our own language about God, the Holy, The Source of all Being, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, or Christ. We agree to listen to each other’s differing language with openness, seeking to hear the underlying Spirit where the words come from. Together, we commit to upholding our best intentions in relationship, with our broadly shared goal of growing in faithfulness.
A key intention, one we come back to again and again, is a stated willingness to tolerate ambiguity. True, our semantics don’t all “add up” to a systematic theology. Yes, we choose to allow our differences to exist as we listen and learn. We are not called together to debate doctrine or convince anyone of anything. It’s quite counter-cultural: We aim to achieve mutual understanding and appreciation, not agreement.
In Way of the Spirit, we expect discomfort as we dialogue. A participant gave me permission to share this story as example:
A guest presenter shared of coming to recognize a personal spiritual giftedness in healing. By laying on hands and humble prayer, some people were helped to physically recover from illness. The participant had only heard tel-evangelists speak of spiritual healing. Her impressions were quite negative. A strong science background and years in the mental health profession flared into intense push-back: “You seem sincere,” she said, “But I’ve needed to help protect vulnerable people from many who claim special cures not based in science….” As facilitator, I wondered if she might bolt for the door.
What happened instead was they talked and listened. Since the guest presenter shared similar scientific doubts, together they sorted through the experience. The participant decided to “put inability to believe on hold.” She explored the “what if’s” for herself during retreat time, living with the high contrast of her thoughts and judgments, with the presenters’ lived experience. She “tolerated the ambiguity” of not knowing, and of not having the answers.
Over the following days on retreat, she met with the presenter independently about her shoulder pain that had persisted for months. And she experienced God flowing through. Two weeks later, she wrote that her shoulder pain, “was relieved through his gift almost immediately and is now gone. I sit with this in wonder and gratitude. …How marvelous are your works, O God!” She opened to trusting the Divine working through others in ways new and surprising to her.
Tolerating ambiguity may be hardest for participants with prophetic sensibilities keenly tuned to the current societal chaos, injustice, and the groanings of the earth itself. Our world needs these people who are feeling called by God to “stand up and protest.” What we ask on retreat is to notice when that adversarial orientation is pegged to the on position, then to dial it down. On retreat, we explore in the Grace Margin without adversaries, beyond “us and them.” We trust the Spirit working in and between us to reveal what is needed, and how our giftedness might contribute to the common good, or the Reign of God come near.
Why do this edgy thing?
Back to the question, “Am I in danger or just uncomfortable?” Deep fault lines divide our nation over the meanings of faith and faithful living. It’s more challenging to engage with others who speak in different terms of their lived experience of God. Yet their experiences are real. The Spirit continues to move and draw us together. When we turn from self-protection and danger-avoidance, we are more available to the Spirit’s invitation in each moment. We can trust that even our weaknesses and fears can be re-made in grace Many contemporary Christians are refugees from painful childhood church experiences. They’ve never unpacked their baggage to fully integrate the Good News. We need times and tools to practice speaking across the divisions. Mixed faith-experience groups like Way of the Spirit offer a vibrant opportunity.
Danger or discomfort? is an endurance model for transformative change. People of sincere faith are called to stretch to respond to the world’s aching needs: racism, sexism, greedy capitalism, poverty, and the degradation of the natural world, to name a few. Several lifetimes’ worth of needs! It’s time to stretch into discomfort for the long haul. Like my friend on her bicycle considering giving up, we can recognize the difference between danger and discomfort, and keep moving forward with the Spirit.
- “On the Tour Divide: Asking the Right Question for 2,700 Miles.” August 12, 2018 Fairbanks Daily News Miner
- Law, Eric. Inclusion: Making Room for Grace, St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2000.
About the Author
Christine Hall is a member of Whidbey Island Friends Meeting, north of Seattle in North Pacific Yearly Meeting. She founded and directs Way of the Spirit: Retreats and Learning for Compassionate Action and serves as adjunct faculty at Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry.
Way of the Spirit welcomes participants from the western U.S. and Canada, and beyond. We gather in Washington and Oregon for six retreats over two years. The program offers a gently guided approach that is uniquely attentive to the movements of the God within each individual. Program content is grounded in Quaker spirituality and enriched by ecumenical perspectives.
Retreat modules stimulate learning on varied topics including: the inner journey, holistic prayer and spiritual practices, a relational or communal experience of Spirit, forgiveness, discernment, spiritual companioning; and living out “leadings” of the Spirit into action for service, peace, justice, and compassionate care.
Details, photos, alumni comments, and online application are posted here: https://goodnewsassoc.org/spirit/. 2019 retreat cycle begins February 15-18th.