“Reading often means gathering information, acquiring new insight and knowledge, and mastering a new field. It can lead to degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words. As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual life….Discernment requires not only reading with the heart but being willing to put down the book we are reading to just listen to what God is saying to us through its words….God often reveals the contents of my own heart, as I slow and read not to know more but to be more fully known by God.” – Henri Nouwen, Discernment, HarperOne, pp. 41-42, 52.
I presume that I am not the only one who has little quirks that annoy their spouse, correct! I love to read (and yes, with a book in my hand and turning pages, not on a machine!) No problem with reading, but what annoys Cindy is that I always hold the book in my left hand and hold my highlighter in my right hand. Even when I am reading for pleasure (which all reading is to me!), even when I am reading on vacation or while driving in the car, I always have my highlighter in hand. Cindy often asks me, “Can’t you just relax and enjoy the book? Do you have to highlight all the time?” I explain, “Dear, I never know when I am going to come across a gem or a nugget. I highlight the important stuff so that I can always go back and read the book again. I don’t want to lose track of the important things that I have learned.”
Perhaps it is for this reason that the quote above from Henri Nouwen struck me so. Spiritual reading has become a big part of my prayer life. These days I always have a spiritual book alongside my Bible. It seems to me that the things that I highlight in a book are the way that the book is reading me. And on those occasions when the book is really reading me, that I feel like I’m being more fully known by God, then I copy those quotes in my journal. This is the type of reading that I offered to the congregation on Ash Wednesday as a possible Lenten practice.
I recently read the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. This autobiography is the story of dysfunctional Appalachian culture and Vance’s dysfunctional upbringing. (This book is a must read for those who help out at Monday Meals, IPM, SEM, Manna from Heaven, or the Appalachian Service Project.) Vance spends much of the book struggling with trying to understand his relationship with his mother. His mother experimented with drugs, was an alcoholic, had five husbands, experienced run-ins with the law, and was, for the most part, an absentee mother. In this entire book there was one sentence that struck me profoundly (it is now copied into my journal!). Vance concludes, “There is room now for both anger at Mom for the life she chooses and sympathy for the childhood she didn’t.”
I have been meeting people “at the gas station” (the poor in our community) for twenty years now trying to understand how they got into the predicament that they are in. The vast majority of them have a story similar to J.D. Vance. There was dysfunction in their childhood. They often didn’t finish high school. They may have had children at a very early age, out of wedlock. They’ve dabbled in substances. They are unemployed or working minimum wage jobs. They are usually isolated from any family, neighbor, or a community support system. In sum, they have made some very bad decisions along the way. For twenty years I have wrestled with a narrative to understand how I should interact with them. Do I help them unconditionally…every time…over and over again…enabling them? Do I trust them at their word or do I need to vet them? Do I offer tough love? When something seems awry or the asks are relentless, do I turn them away, which always feels so un-Christ like? Do I slide into judgment…knowing full-well that judgment belongs only to God? Do I lecture, admonish, or degrade them for making the same mistakes over and again?
There but for the grace of God go I! I am quite certain that if I had not had the childhood, parents, family, community system, and opportunities that I had, but rather had been brought up with the dysfunction of J.D. Vance’s family, or the gas station families, I would likely be the recipient at the gas station today, not the one holding the pastor’s discretionary fund purse strings! I think that J.D. Vance has it just right in these encounters. Maybe to be angry (I’ll use the more gentle word, “frustrated”) with them for the life they have chosen and the decisions they have made, but sympathetic (I’ll use the stronger word, “compassionate”) for the childhood they did not choose. That philosophy seems to put the paradox of emotions under one umbrella and allows space for hesitation and response.
I suppose we can substitute “human experiences” for “books” and still come away with the same meaning that Nouwen attributes to discernment. That in each human experience we put it down and listen to what God is saying through the other. I encounter the other not to know more about them, but to be more fully known by God. Perhaps in this way the gas station becomes holy ground and the gate of heaven.
What book…what gas station…what person is God using to know you more fully? Slow down…put it down…jot it down…just listen…God is likely speaking!
Discerning with you, Pastor Zorn
About the Author: Pastor Henry Zorn is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.