John Backman is a guest writer whose voice we’re honored to share. You can read more about John in his bio at the end of the piece.
I keep making this one mistake in providing spiritual direction. Weirdly, it’s the same mistake a lot of us make when dealing with people on the other side of a hot-button issue, like faith and sexuality.
In my first meeting with a new client, I inevitably ask, “What brings you to spiritual direction?” This question has as many answers as there are people. One person may need more shape or direction to her prayer life. Another may be struggling to hear God’s will. Whatever the case, most people have a “presenting issue” to bring to spiritual direction, and it comes out here.
At this point, I assume we’ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this person’s walk with the Lord.
You’ve spotted the mistake, right?
Somewhere in our first few meetings, it dawns on me: the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized, pre-packaged quandary. Rather, it’s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that person’s soul: the infrastructure she’s spent a lifetime building. As a result, it’s not going away anytime soon. In fact, we may spend the rest of our spiritual direction relationship—even if lasts decades—working and reworking this same issue.
To use the maritime metaphor, this issue is a big ship. And it takes a long time to turn a big ship.
(Fun fact: apparently this isn’t just a metaphor. “Big ships do not turn very well,” according to the article Twenty Tanker Tips. “Really big ships may need 5-10 miles to turn.”)
So what does this have to do with faith and sexuality?
As we strive to build bridges across divides—as we get acquainted and share our stories and start to forge ties with people on the other side—it’s easy to hope that our relationships with them will change their minds. Or their hearts will change, and they’ll soften their stance. Even if we set aside the idea of changing minds, we can at least hope for reconciliation.As we strive to build bridges across divides … it’s easy to hope that our relationships with them will change their minds.
Best of all, being good frenzied Western postmodern people, we half-consciously assume all this should happen in a “reasonable” amount of time. Weeks, maybe. Months at the most.
Like my clients, all of us have spent a lifetime with our beliefs. We’ve watched them evolve and come into focus and get fuzzy again. We have doubted them, discarded them entirely, or committed to them anew. They’re not just ideas we ascribe to. They’re part of our souls.
That is one big ship. It takes a long time to turn a big ship—if it ever turns at all.
This calls us to one of the more elusive virtues: infinite patience. If developing our convictions took a lifetime, maybe softening stances or forging reconciliation will too. In the meantime, we persist with one another.If developing our convictions took a lifetime, maybe softening stances or forging reconciliation will too.
Of course, that raises the question: why bother? There are good biblical reasons to do so—love your enemies being the most compelling (Matt. 5:44 NIV). But here’s a reason we don’t often consider: behind those convictions, even some we might deem reprehensible, are other ideas that may have something to contribute to God’s reign.
Maybe, behind that opposition to same-sex marriage, there is an esteem for the long and beautiful tradition—the wisdom of the ages, as it were—that anchors the Church in a storm. Maybe, behind the advocacy of full inclusion for LGBTQ+ people, there is a high regard for God’s never-ending ability to surprise us, to upend our assumptions, to keep us from getting too comfortable. God’s upended us before: ask Peter about his vision of the sheet and the unclean animals (Acts 10:9-35 NIV).
We just never know how essential that love of tradition, or embrace of God’s surprising nature, or other core idea might be down the road. And the not-knowing keeps us from being, as Paul says, the eye that says to the hand, “I don’t need you!” (1 Cor. 12:21 NIV).
Make no mistake: this persisting with one another is an infinitely slow and difficult slog. We need patience with ourselves as well, and a mighty dollop of self-care and immersion in God for the fortitude to see us through. But consider the prize: not only the riches behind the convictions on the other side, but the people who hold those convictions—pearls of great price in the eyes of God, jewels that can bedazzle us if we can bring ourselves to see them in all their beauty.
About the Author
As a spiritual director, an associate of an Episcopal monastery and a genderfluid Christian, John Backman writes and speaks about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues—including issues of gender and sexuality. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths) and contributes regularly to Huffington Post Religion. His articles have appeared in RELEVANT, IMPACT, and many other publications.