A single sentence in a fireside chat can suddenly inspire us! That certainly happened for a Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Tournier. He tells the story in his book, A Place for You. It was the first book in my soul care journey and begins with a simple account that gripped me 50 years ago and has never left me.
“The words were those of a young student with whom I formed a deep friendship. He was sitting by my fireside, telling me of his difficulties, of the anxiety that never left him, and which at times turned to panic and to flight. He was trying to look objectively at what was going on inside himself and to understand it. Then, as if summing up his thoughts, he looked up at me and said: ‘Basically, I’m always looking for a place - for somewhere to be.’”
I have often longed to sit fireside with a lifelong learner and wise listener who would help me better understand myself. I’ve been blessed with a variety of soul brothers over the years and have more now than ever. In addition to those in the covenant groups I lead, I also “break bread with the dead” every day. Some of my best mentors are now deceased, but I’m daily enlightened by them. Men like Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard, and once again, Dr. Paul Tournier.
I was reminded of Dr. Tournier and his inspiring chat by the fire when I saw a photo the other day … of myself! Frankly, it was a surreal moment as I realized that I am now the old man! As pastors frequently gather with me for in-depth conversations, they often express the same longing for understanding that I have had. It is in these reflective settings that we each take turns unpacking our stories, and often remind each other of the importance and power of deep listening. We typically share a quote from another esteemed psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger:
Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we (feel) we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.
We all have a longing to be listened to and accepted. When that happens, there is often a surprising bonding that happens. At first I didn’t understand when someone not all that much younger than me would refer to me as a sort of spiritual father. I sometimes naively assumed they were just teasing me about my age and hair color. Well now that I have even less hair, and what little I have is gray, I’m beginning to appreciate what they were really communicating.
Spiritual fathering is not about age but about influence. It’s not about a title but a relationship, not so much about biology but more about bonding. We all have a few that fit this definition, though we may never have actually honored them by sharing our high esteem for them. Clearly there are times when we need to acknowledge and honor those who God has used to help shape our souls.
- “For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. So I urge you to imitate me.” I Corinthians 4:15-16 NLT
- “And you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children. We pleaded with you, encouraged you, and urged you to live your lives in a way that God would consider worthy. For he called you to share in his Kingdom and glory.” I Thessalonians 4:11-12
Francis Chan said, “You can walk away from a belief system but not father.” The relationship we each have with our imperfect fathers is profound. I was privileged to have a strong relationship with my father; however, sadly, many have had painful and even terrible ones. That’s what has led several to tell me, “You are the closest thing to a father in my life … you are the father I always wanted to have … you are like a spiritual father to me.”
Spiritual parentage is not about perfection but personal trust; therefore, it carries both surprising privileges and special responsibilities. On the privilege side I am entrusted with private information and given surprising freedom to guide and even to challenge. On the responsibility side I am increasingly aware that I must take special care with my words. I’m regularly reminded that the toughest of men can have the tenderest of hearts!
We are all blessed with life enriching relationships. None of us are spiritual orphans. Someone has influenced us, shaped us and encouraged us in our spiritual journey, and a few of them still do. When these people come to mind it should prompt us to both honor them and to thank God for them.
So who are the spiritual fathers (and mothers) you most long to sit with by the fire … and do they know it?