It is pretty easy to love your neighbor when you are speaking about people you like such as friends and family. But, how do we do this with people we don’t like? How do we see God in someone who is trying to take advantage of us?
That’s a much tougher calling.
I struggle with this quite a bit. I am a veteran at table combat and a trained community organizer who was taught to personalize the issue and to see my opponent as “the enemy”. In fact, in the Alynsky school of organizing, I was trained to NEVER talk to the person against whom I was organizing.
So I think I’ve come a long way, but when pushed into a corner my instinct is to push back. Hard.
That’s why this process of Detachment, Discernment and Engagement is so attractive to me. It helps me to create some distance from the troubling encounter and it reminds me that I’m just a passenger on this trip, not the pilot. I’m happy to share this with you. It has helped me and hopefully it can help you, as well.
When I’m in a trying situation, the first thing I attempt to do is create some mental space; to detach.
Detachment is key to the process and works best if your intent is to live a life centered on God. The goal is to create space between you and the outcome of your encounter. Stephen Covey in his seminal book, Seven Habits for Highly Effective People talks about the space between stimulus and response within which gives us the ability to choose. I try to use that space to give the outcome over to God.
I have become a big fan of Contemplative Prayer. Contemplative Prayer is resting in the faithful acknowledgement that the seed of God is within me. And prayer is simply sitting in the humble homage and wonder within the presence of God. Through contemplative prayer – and through Quaker teaching – I have become used to the idea that God is not only a constant companion but also a ready adviser and teacher.
As such, giving over the outcome of a trying situation to God is something I have learned to do over time.
Discernment – Discernment is pretty straight forward and is one of the great beauties of Quaker teaching. We are taught that each person – in their heart (or soul) - knows what is the right thing to do in any situation. The trick is to be still. To be prayerful and to listen deeply.
A Quaker friend of mine – George – advises that we shouldn’t pray to God for intervention. Instead, we should be asking God to hold us in the light and help us to know what we are to do in this situation.
I also have come to realize that the quote from Douglass Steere is quite true. In his 1997 book, Dimensions of Prayer, Steere says “Seeds, not fruit, are given in prayer.” So our discernment will likely give us only a general sense of what to do. I have seldom found my prayers answered with a clear message. But once again – the wisdom of the Quaker teaching shines forth. We are taught that if you think you are being led (or called) then you must act. Which leads us to the last step.
Engagement – We are not only called to be faith filled, we are called to act on our faith. Jesus said that “Everyone who listens to my words and acts on them will be like a wise person who built their house on a rock.” (Matthew 7:24). The phrase “acts on them” is key here. The Quakers say that to follow God, one must have both the strength to lead and the faith to follow. The step of engagement is one that takes both strength and faith. Stepping out in response to a sense of calling takes courage. And, mustering courage is easier if you have faith that God will provide the resources for those who act on his behalf. Henri Nouwen declares that in Jesus, speaking and acting were one. In his book, Can You Drink This Cup, Nouwen says “Drinking the cup is an act of selfless love, an act of immense trust, an act of surrender to God who will give what we need when we need it.”
Or, if you prefer a more contemporary prophet, you can learn from the wisdom of a Nike commercial which encourages us to “Just Do It”.
I know that acting on our calling is difficult and I struggle with it constantly. But what I also know is we must act or our faith will become hollow.
When dealing with any difficult situation, following the steps of Detachment, Discernment and Engagement will help us to better understand what we are called to do at this place and at this time…and then to do it.
I have written a couple of Haikus on this issue and share them below.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.