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A Fictitious Conversation: Listening for God in the Other

Read the second article in this series by Ken Curtis here.

In a quiet café, two friends gather each week for breakfast, to encourage each other in their spiritual life, share insights from the Bible, pray for each other and their families, and nurture their friendship. They have been doing this for quite some time. On this morning, after exchanging a few pleasantries and inquiring about each other’s family’s, they settle into this conversation.

Jerry  I’ve been reading a book this week that has really been troubling to me.

Bob  Really, in what way?

Jerry  In terms of my devotional life, and the time I spend with God.

Bob  How so?

Jerry  Well for a lot of years, I’ve had the practice of taking a little time at the end of the day to pray, and reflect on those times during my day when I saw evidence of grace, or God at work in the lives of people around me . . . as well as those times when I could have been more gracious to others, but wasn’t. 

Bob  Yeah. I do something similar. It can be a very meaningful way to reflect and pray.

Jerry  That’s what I thought too . . . but that was before I knew where this idea came from.

Bob  Why would that matter? I mean, why wouldn’t you want to take some time to be in prayer like that?

Jerry  Well, I guess it matters, at least to the guy who wrote the book. Because, you see, the person who seems to have first written this down and urged people to do it was a guy named Ignatius of Loyola.

Bob  Yeah . . . so . . .

Jerry  Well, as it turns out, Ignatius was a Jesuit. In fact, he was the founder of the order of Jesuits. And as you know from history, Jesuits have been involved in a lot of pretty horrible things down through the years!

Bob  That’s true . . . as have a lot of people who go by the name of Christian! Ever read about how many of the followers of Martin Luther treated the Anabaptists? Besides, people who have been a part of that order have come up with some good and helpful stuff over the years. There are lots of people I don’t fully agree with about everything that still have some great contributions to make. And besides, do you really want to define people solely by the actions of others who are a part of the group they belong to?

Jerry  I guess not. But still, the book I am reading argues that since Ignatius was a Jesuit, and he promoted this practice . . . well . . . that it would be dangerous to use it. I mean, couldn’t we be led astray or deceived by this? Not only that, it's pretty clear that he was a devoted Catholic . . . and I am a Protestant . . . so what I believe does differ in a number of ways!

Bob  Yes it does. And yet . . . I suspect that Ignatius probably also paid his bills on time, taught that we should honor our father and mother, and was against stealing and adultery too.  Certainly there are some significant theological points we differ on and which should not be minimized, but there are lots of things that we would very much agree upon as well.

Jerry  But that’s just the problem! How do I know that something “bad” is not being slipped in along with some of the “good” things we might agree about? 

Bob  Sort of like a trojan horse or something?

Jerry  Well, yeah.

Bob Well, aside from the fact that it is always possible that we might not have everything right either, and that maybe we have a few things we could learn too (there is always that possibility you know) . . . to apply a good “protestant” principle here . . . if we are listening carefully to scripture and staying focused on Jesus, we should be able to notice where God has given people good insights to share that we can appreciate, and where there are things we would not be willing to accept. We make decisions and choices like this all the time.

Jerry  But doesn't that sound kind of risky?

Bob Maybe, but no more so than anything else. It’s the way we deal with anything we believe, whether it is from a person like Ignatius who may give us some great insights on ways to pay attention to God, or Mother Theresa who models for us what a genuine life of Christian service can look like, or any one of a number of other people who we might not agree with about everything, but who still have significant things to share. 

Jerry  But we should consider the source, shouldn’t we?

Bob Yes, we should. But we also need to understand that people are not fully defined by where they come from, or even what group they are associated with. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” “Your master eats with tax collectors and sinners!” 

Jerry  Yeah, or when the disciples told Jesus that they had seen someone doing good things in Jesus name, and they told them to stop because they were not part of their particular group . . .

Bob Yes -- Jesus told them to leave them alone. I wonder why it is so hard for us to believe that God might actually be working in the lives of people who are not just like us . . . or to make it sound like everyone who is not just like us, or sees things just as we do, are part of a great spiritual conspiracy?

Jerry  But there is evil at work in the world though, and it would like nothing more than to lead people astray. What could be a more effective way of doing this than by creating a bunch of misleading and false religious ideas?

Bob That is quite true. And it is something we need to take very seriously. Both the scriptures, and a brief survey of the history of the church, clearly demonstrate what happens when religion becomes twisted and distorted into something destructive in the lives of people. The Old Testament is full of prophecies that urge us not to lose sight of what is at the core of what we believe by absorbing the practices of the culture God’s people found themselves in that undermined a clear understanding of God’s character, and how we are called to live in response to the love and graciousness that God shares with us. Jesus is clear about this as well, and in fact, is crucified by those whose religious sensitivities had been distorted in a way that justified crucifixion. That kind of evil is much more insidious than we image, and is something against which we need to constantly be on guard. That is the kind of thing that takes shape in the "beastly" forms that major powers in the world unite around, and which the book of Revelation describes.

Jerry  So, you think that the book I’m reading is on the right track then, when it warns about being deceived by taking part in practices like the ones people like Ignatius encouraged?

Bob  Well, do you think that the practice of reflecting on God’s grace and how you did or didn’t respond to it each day is something that leads you into the kind of stuff that the Bible so clearly warns against?

Jerry Well . . . no . . . in fact, it seems like the very kind of thing the Bible encourages us to do.

Bob From all that you have read in scripture, do you honestly think that this would be something that God would not want you to do? 

Jerry Actually . . . no.

Bob So, why then would you want to stop doing it?  

Jerry  Because the book I am reading suggests that, because it is so clearly described by Ignatius, that there must be something wrong with it, and therefore I can’t safely engage in it.

Bob And did you know that Ignatius also encouraged people to pray, and even to read scripture? Would you be willing to stop doing those things as well?

Jerry  Of course not!

Bob Why?

Jerry  Because . . . I can’t help the fact that people who I may not fully agree with about everything, or who may belong to a group that sometimes has done things that I can’t support . . . might still get some things right!

Bob Exactly. The Bible calls that the gift of discernment. Making Spirit led decisions about what is and is not the right thing to do based on what the scriptures actually do say.

Jerry Even if the people don’t fully believe everything I believe to be true?

Bob Jerry, are you fully comfortable with every decision or everything that David did in his life? Or Solomon? Or many of the others who contributed to the scriptures? Have you ever noticed how people like Abimelech, someone who clearly was not one of God’s “chosen people” at the time, still managed to have something from God to share with Abraham? We don’t have to compromise anything to realize that God can give insights to anyone God wants to without getting it approved by us first.

Jerry  Well, so what about the book and the concerns it raises?

Bob To the extent that the book warns us about the reality that we can be led astray by allowing things that are not rooted in the values of God’s Kingdom to take root in our lives, it may have a  point . . . but it sounds to me like it loses track of the real point quite quickly. Have you ever considered that the book might actually be more of an illustration of the problem than a description of it?

Jerry  Oh . . . yes . . . I see what you mean . . . maybe so.

Bob People often fear what they don’t understand. I know that sometimes I react that way. And when that happens, sometimes, our fear of things like being deceived can actually become a barrier to understanding the truth, sometimes to the point that we miss the things that we really should be concerned about. Then as that fear feeds on itself, we can get stuck in a self-perpetuating loop.

Jerry Yeah, I can see how that happens. In fact, I have been there myself at various times in my life. Sometimes it is made even harder if we are feeling somehow threatened in some way, or because we want to protect the things that matter to us. That's when we can over-react, and sometimes portray people and ideas in ways that are not only unfair, but sometimes even untrue.

Bob Yes. And once the idea of “conspiracy” has been invoked, then any attempt at getting people to listen to each other, or simply look at all the facts fairly, or to consider the validity of the assumptions that are often made, runs the risk of simply being seen as part of the conspiracy.

Jerry  And so we can get locked even more tightly into the spiral and become unable to hear or understand anything that does not already agree with what we have already decided.

Bob Yeah . . . But having said that, we really don’t have to stay there. I still believe that, if we are willing to be responsive to the Spirit, we can learn to listen to each other fairly and honestly once again.

Jerry  Perhaps if we were willing to take the rhetoric in books like this one down a notch or two, and listen more carefully and non-reactively before we act or write or repeat what we have heard . . .

Bob . . . Then even though we might still not see everything the same way, we might at least come to understand each other better -- both in terms of the good things that are shared that we should embrace, as well as the things we may not wish to incorporate into our lives.

Jerry And if we could do that, we might even be able to see more clearly, and discern more wisely, just where the real deceptions are that are working at cross purposes with what Jesus came to show us, and invite us to be a part of. Otherwise, we’ll likely wind up getting diverted, and miss the forest for the trees.

Bob And maybe even find ourselves working at cross purposes with God?

Jerry Perhaps that is where the real heresy lies?

Bob Perhaps. Which may be why intentionally keeping Jesus in focus is the best thing we can do when it comes to protecting ourselves from being deceived.

Jerry  Seems easy enough, doesn’t it?

Bob  Wonder why we make it so hard sometimes?

The waitress handed Bob the check, but Jerry insisted on paying for it this time. They took a few moments to pray for each other, gathered up their things, and stepped out onto the sidewalk, each ready to embrace the day more thoughtfully than when they arrived.

 

Ken Curtis is Associate Pastor at Calimesa SDA church and blogs at KensFootnotes where this article originally appeared, June 18, 2012.

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