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Seeking second opinions: spiritual growth requires trained encouragement.

'We are going to have to get Jim to fell that big Lodgepole Pine tree before it demolishes our house," Linda said in bed over coffee one early morning.

"Huh?" I said intelligently. I was haft anesthetized by the view of the rising spring sun massaging the tender green aspen leaves in the grove just outside our bedroom window. She had taken me by surprise as she usually does this early in the morning and it took me a moment to recover and parry her advances. "What on earth do you mean, fell that beautiful large healthy pine? You have been after its hide ever since we settled here 16 years ago and I can't figure for the life of me what you have against it," I was fully aroused now and up for a good argument.

Linda continued to make her case. "Well, the tree is a couple of feet in diameter, at least a 150 feet tall and it's just the right distance from our house and in the right direction, that one of our fierce south winds off the lake could blow it over, smashing our house to bits. And you know where it would land don't you?"

"Ya, ya I know, right over the bedroom and you wouldn't want to lose me to a falling tree. I still can't figure out why you think it would be me that would be taken out and not you. You think I deserve to die more than you do or something? At any rate, I am the resident forester in the family and I have examined that tree very carefully. It is as healthy as a horse. There are no signs of any disease or rot or insect damage. Its foliage is a nice dark green, its structure is sound and it is growing in good solid soil. A good strong healthy tree like that is going to out live me for sure and maybe even you, miss Norwegian longevity." (Linda and I are almost the same age but thanks to her Scandinavian genes she looks 15 years younger than I do, something I have yet to forgive her for.)

"Not according to the pileated woodpecker," Linda countered. "He was checking out the pine yesterday and he seems to think it's doing poorly."

"So who are you going to trust, the diagnosis of your extremely well educated forester husband or that dumb redheaded noisy bird-brain who makes his living bashing his brains out against pine trees?" I climbed out of bed and pulled on my Levis and riding boots and strode out of the room confident that I had lost yet another early morning round up.

A few days later, Linda silently signalled for me to come from my laptop computer to look out the back door window. She pointed to the healthy pine tree without saying a word. Perched on its side was a large red headed pileated woodpecker (dryocopus pileatus). He was hacking at the tree with his big chisel beak like some demented axe-wheedling logger. Great sheets of bark were flying off the pine in all directions exposing the telltale boring channels of the mountain pine beetle in the cambium layer underneath. My extremely healthy pine was deader than a bag of hammer handles but just didn't know it yet. Apparently neither did I, perhaps because I loved that old pine and desperately didn't want it to change. The pileated woodpecker knew the truth though. Through the senses that only woodpeckers have, the pileated woodpecker had given his second more experienced and objective opinion. He had sensed the mass of maggot-like larvae at work beneath the bark and then he had exposed the whole buggy affair.

I went back to my work with a certain air of depression. I loved that big pine and now it was not only dead but also it would have to be felled. We had precious few trees on our lakefront lot and I knew that Bud, our Labrador retreiver and Nuts, the red squirrel, and a whole host of birds who used the tree were going to mourn its loss. Secretly, even Linda was going to miss the grand old pine. Only the pileated woodpecker seemed to be objective about the whole thing. When I went back and checked on him a while later he had pretty much debarked the total tree and in the process had eaten countless little white bark-beetle maggots for his lunch. As I watched, he flew away in his great swooping flight pattern to look for another diagnosis to make in another part of the forest.

Later the same day, I was driving to a house church gathering and I got to thinking about the pileated woodpecker's second opinion and my reluctance to want to listen to it. In most areas of my life I value a second opinion greatly. If I am facing health concerns I don't stop with self diagnose, I get a second opinion from a doctor, and if it is a serious condition, I want a third opinion too. When it comes to investing money I don't do it based upon my own opinion, I get the second opinion of an investment counsellor. If I am going through a tough time emotionally, I have learned to seek counsel beyond my own. I have become pretty good at seeking a second opinion in almost every area of my life except two. One of those areas happens to be forestry where I like to feel I am some kind of an expert, the other area is my soul, my inner spiritual being. I can understand that pride is the stumbling block when it comes to seeking a second opinion over something to do with trees, but what is the stumbling block when it comes to seeking a second opinion concerning the timber of my life, my soul, my spiritual being?

In the Christian faith, seeking or providing a second opinion for the soul is called spiritual direction. I know I am not alone in having a problem with seeking spiritual direction because in over 22 years of being a pastor whose job description includes providing spiritual direction, whose education includes special training in spiritual direction, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been sought out to be someone's spiritual director. I have been sought out many times to be counsellor, therapist, confessor, teacher, mediator, admonisher and encourager but hardly ever to be a spiritual director. It could be that people just don't see me as being the spiritual director type or being their particular spiritual director. But I suspect that it is more than likely that most Christians, particularly Protestant Christians, don't want to seek a second opinion concerning their spiritual being. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, with regards to the inner life of the soul, we seem to become blissfully satisfied with mediocrity.

Eugene Peterson writes in Finding a Spiritual Director about his personal experience in becoming aware that he needed to seek one. He compared it to playing the banjo where as a self taught banjo picker he rose to a certain level of expertise and was very pleased and satisfied for a time. Eventually though he never seemed to go beyond that level of playing and over time he became bored, and bored others to tears with his playing. The same old banjo licks just weren't enough anymore and so he lost interest. Had he sought a second opinion, had he sought another more experienced banjo picker to jam with, why there is no telling to what heights he could have gone. That's what a spiritual director's role is in the Christian's life. The spiritual director is not a counsellor, therapist, confessor, teacher, mediator or admonisher. He or she is a trusted fellow Christian with more maturity and experience in the spiritual walk than I have and with whom I can meet regularly for spiritual "jam sessions" to encourage me to keep making intentional progress in my spiritual journey.

Throughout Christian history spiritual direction has been an important and special ministry. It is only in recent times that it has become a lost art and a seldom-sought service. Peterson warns, "It strikes me that it is not wise to treat lightly what most generations of Christians have agreed is essential."

If your soul life has gone flat, if your spiritual journey has become one mundane song, if the timber of your inner life seems to be under attack, seek a second opinion. Seek out a spiritual director. If you are interested in learning more about spiritual direction, visit your local Christian bookstore. Here are three of my favorite authors on the subject, from a healthy wide range of Christian traditions: Eugene H. Peterson (Presbyterian), Richard Foster (Quaker) and Henri J. M. Nouwen (Roman Catholic).

Rev. David Webber is a contributing editor to the Record. He is a minister of the Cariboo, B.C. house church ministry and the author of From Under a Blazing Aspen, And the Aspens Whisper and the recently published Like a Winter's Aspen: Embracing the Creator's Fire.
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Title Annotation:for the journey: contemporary spirituality
Author:Webber, David
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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