Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” —Mr. Beaver to Lucy in C.S. Lewis’ clas­sic, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

I have the joy of prac­tic­ing group spir­i­tu­al direc­tion twice a month in a prison. This prac­tice is teach­ing me many things about fol­low­ing Jesus and about shar­ing Jesus with oth­ers.

This past Sat­ur­day, Jesse, a pris­on­er new to our prayer prac­tices, shared that his expe­ri­ence of Jesus is still so new. He con­fessed he is just begin­ning to open him­self to God, try­ing to deter­mine if it’s safe to approach God fur­ther. I chuck­led some about this and decid­ed to be hon­est with him. No, Jesse,” I said, Approach­ing God is not safe. It’ll wreck your life.” 

Jesus asks us, Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” As I men­tioned last month, Jesus offers us a nice, hot cup of die-to-your­self. Why would any­one ever want to imbibe such a drink?

The cup Jesus offers us is the liv­ing water of trans­for­ma­tion, of death and res­ur­rec­tion. It’s a drink of our bap­tismal waters. This strong drink is an acquired taste for most of us. It takes us time to learn how to reg­u­lar­ly drink deeply of Jesus, the liv­ing water who is severe yet also lib­er­at­ing, sac­ri­fi­cial while heal­ing, dan­ger­ous yet good. 

If you are giv­en grace to desire this drink at all, the ques­tion then remains: how do I acquire more of a taste for God? If I’m hon­est, I’m scared of tak­ing more of God into myself. I don’t know what he wants from me. How do I learn to want to sur­ren­der more of myself to God?

* * *

I do most of the cook­ing in our home. I pre­fer strong­ly fla­vored foods, the heat of pep­pers, the inten­si­ty of gar­lic and onion. The trou­ble is remem­ber­ing that my fam­i­ly nat­u­ral­ly enjoys milder fla­vors. Unwit­ting­ly, I’m chang­ing their palate — slow­ly, meal by meal. With­out work­ing hard at it, I’m re-defin­ing their tastes. My old­est son has recent­ly tak­en to spicy mus­tard on his bratwurst. He’s also enjoy­ing lit­tle dabs of the jalapeño jel­ly I canned a few years ago. My younger son now eats the sal­ads I pre­pare, and my wife prefers her cof­fee black — if it’s from the fan­cy beans I buy. 

Just by being myself, by being a per­son inter­est­ed in cer­tain foods, films, and books, some­one who delights in the camp­ing and canoe­ing we did this past sum­mer — just by a kind of osmo­sis I am shap­ing the inter­ests and desires of my chil­dren and spouse. 

This is also the gist of what I offer as a spir­i­tu­al direc­tor, a kind of Spir­it-led osmo­sis. What mat­ters more than the words I say to some­one in spir­i­tu­al direc­tion is my inter­nal con­tem­pla­tive pos­ture. The great­est gift I can offer some­one in direc­tion is the way I sit in the pres­ence of God with that per­son, how I share time and space with that per­son in and through the Holy Spirit. 

It’s vital to unpack that word share” here. I do not arrive at a ses­sion of spir­i­tu­al direc­tion to share God with some­one as a per­for­mance or mono­logue. Shar­ing is two-way. It’s rec­i­p­ro­cal. I can only be effec­tive as a facil­i­ta­tor of a spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion if the directee has arrived open and will­ing to share the God that is already inside of her­self. And that is the point: we join togeth­er to prayer­ful­ly dis­cov­er the God who is already mov­ing, breath­ing, and lov­ing in and through us. Jesus has always been near. It’s just that we have yet to acknowl­edge him. 

No doubt over the years some have left a ses­sion of direc­tion with me unim­pressed and sad to have wast­ed an hour. Per­haps I wasn’t the right fit for that per­son as a direc­tor, or per­haps she was not ready for direc­tion any­way. Per­haps she didn’t know how to be weak. 

The only pre­req­ui­site for spir­i­tu­al direc­tion and growth is some expe­ri­ence of humil­i­a­tion, even a minor sense of fail­ure. I first sought direc­tion in the mid­dle of a very pub­lic posi­tion as the wor­ship leader for a small Chris­t­ian col­lege. I was sup­posed to be the con­duit of God for 1200 vol­un­tar­i­ly assem­bled stu­dents. I sought spir­i­tu­al direc­tion when I final­ly accept­ed my inner empti­ness. I had grown so tired of nam­ing Jesus for every­one but myself. I had become a wreck. I was spir­i­tu­al­ly poor and need­ed help. 

The group of men who choose to meet with us in the prison come bro­ken, open, hum­ble, and will­ing. One win­ter when we had trou­ble get­ting to the prison due to a mas­sive snow dump, G, one of the most thought­ful and well-spo­ken human beings I’ve ever met, said, You guys would come here on a sleigh. I don’t under­stand why you all are work­ing so hard to get in here when we are work­ing so hard to get out.” We told G, and we con­tin­ue to remind all the men that we keep com­ing to the prison because of their holy open­ness to God. Their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty means that we see Jesus in the lives of these men in ways we don’t see him any­where else. These men have been drink­ing Jesus’ cup of die-to-your­self. They have been pushed to rock-bot­tom, yet in their humil­i­ty they are each being trans­formed into some­thing stunning. 

My ser­vice as a spir­i­tu­al direc­tor has led me to a focus on pris­on­ers and also pas­tors. I am attempt­ing to make con­nec­tions between the two. I want pas­tors to come into the prison to pray with us. But this is not tra­di­tion­al prison min­istry where we arrive to offer the men access to God. Instead, we go to the prison to see Jesus as he already is in the prison. It’s the wit­ness of the Spir­it mov­ing among the pris­on­ers that I’m so excit­ed to share with the pas­tors. In the prison, prac­tic­ing group spir­i­tu­al direc­tion togeth­er, we share in the eat­ing and drink­ing deeply of Jesus. How will an expe­ri­ence of shar­ing God with the pris­on­ers, the least of these, the moral lep­ers of our soci­ety — how might these pas­tors be changed in ways that trans­form the scope of their parish work? 

As you lis­ten and pray through my con­ver­sa­tion with Trevor Hud­son, you will hear us shar­ing deeply of God with each oth­er, deep cry­ing unto deep. I invite you to join us in drink­ing this cup of Christ to remem­ber your bap­tism, to know him, the pow­er of res­ur­rec­tion, the fel­low­ship of his suf­fer­ings, that you and I might be con­formed unto his death.

Josh is the host and cre­ator of the Invi­ta­tion Pod­cast. He has giv­en us per­mis­sion to share this blog post. Please vis­it his web­site: The Invi­ta­tion.

Text First Published October 2018 · Last Featured on May 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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