Abbey Focus Workshop #2: The Role of Others in our Spiritual Formation

This is a recap of the Abbey workshop on Monday night during Kaleo Focus. We have been thinking about what it looks like to pay attention in 3 directions: inward (at the self, with God), outward (at others, with God), and upward (at God, with God’s help!). There are three spiritual disciplines that undergird each of these directions, and can be remembered by the phrase: Stop, Look, and Listen. Last month we talked about “stopping” practices, namely silence and solitude, which help us “stop” our frantic activity (within and without) and make space to listen to God and be exposed to God’s healing love in deeper ways.


This month we talked about the role of “others” in our spiritual formation, remembering how our own development is inextricably indebted to and reliant on an “outward” focus, or an ability to pay attention to, make space for, include, love others, and receive love from others. We began with this go-around question: Who is someone that you’re really indebted to, who was important to you at a particular point in your life, or who you really blossomed around? (Don’t think too hard; share the first person that comes to mind.) We then got to hear - more beautifully than I would have been able to “teach” - the ways God uses people to communicate God’s love in very specific and life-saving ways.


The main question we ended up working with was:

What can it look like to have an “outward” focus - a readiness to identify with, include, and love others - while living within our limits and staying replenished by our ultimate source (God)?


I offered these 5 observations about sustaining an “outward” focus:


  1. It’s complicated

    1. Our culture’s hyper-individualism says we can do anything we want (if we really want it and are savvy enough) and that we can meet our own needs. Church (and nonprofit) culture, on the other hand, can be hyper-others-ism, encouraging an uncritical outward focus (or “servanthood”) that can actually be more about image maintenance or self-protection than actually loving others, and leading to feelings of failure, burnout, or resentment. Like Paul (kind of said): things aren’t always what they seem. We need God to help us sort out what a healthy outward focus looks like for each of us.


  1. We can’t talk about “others” without talking about “self”

    1. One way to hear Jesus’ commandment is as “Love your OTHERS as yourSELF.” Life - and love! - is one who cloth: when you tug at one end, another end flutters. As much as it might “feel” like it, “There is no outside (the) text” (Derrida). We can’t stand “outside” of ourselves and love others “purely,” just like we can’t stand “outside” the church, noting the brokenness we see, without acknowledging our complicity. I’m making this sound like bad news (which it is sometimes), but it’s also good news! It means that our ability to love others is inextricably tied to our own sense of our belovedness; we aren’t expected to “output” without the “input.”


  1. It takes a group to know a person, and it takes a group to know God

    1. In The Four Loves, CS Lewis has a great story about how each person in a (small) group brings something unique out of each other person. When one person isn’t there, you’d think you might be able to get “more” out of each other (less people = more time). But Lewis says it’s the opposite - you actually get “less” out of each person because you don’t have that person who brings out something only they bring out in each.  That’s a long way of saying we get “more” of God through one another, and more of God’s image is brought out in us by doing life with others.


  1. An outward focus starts “at home”

    1. Any ethic for loving others has to include the “furniture” of our lives - the people that we most take for granted, see the most, pass the most, use the most, forget about the most. It can be strangely easy to drum up feelings for loving “capital O” “Others,” and forget that includes the (unglamorous) others we live with or work with or sit in pews with. Like Anne Lamott posted on Facebook a few years ago: “Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way you can do this work in comfortable pants.”


  1. An outward focus will take us “out of our way”

    1. Among other things, Jesus’ whole ministry can be characterized as one of crossing boundaries: divine/human, clean/unclean, religious/gentile, heaven/earth, etc. Taking the great commandment seriously means we will go out of our way to include, identify with, and love others. I remember reading in the parenting book, Blessing of the Skinned Knee, about the Jewish custom of crossing the street whenever you see someone you remotely know. Having the margins, and priority, to “cross the street” for others is one way I understand having an outward focus. In his lent devotional, Walter Brueggemann imagines a church with an “outward” focus, describing it as people who “foot the bill for neighborliness and mercy when we have many other bills to pay,” and who “pay attention to those disqualified by the capitalist system.”


A tool: LOOK (daily awareness)

Sustaining a healthy “outward” focus, however, requires discernment and “cross-pollination” with the inward and upward focuses. One great tool for discernment is the prayer of examen, also known as daily awareness, daily inventory or review, or LT3F. This practice, grounded in Psalm 139, gives a chance to pay attention to our real lives, become familiar with the Voice of the Good Shepherd,  and sort out the invitations from God from our default instinct and feelings, which may or may not be leading us to love God, self, and others more. Those who came to the Abbey workshop took home a Daily Examen workbook, to try for a week or longer. Feel free to print one out or make something similar to use yourselves (*it’s formatted to be printed out as two double-sided sheets, and then folded in half).