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Literature as an Invitation to Spiritual Growth
An Online Book Group
Discussion Guide by The Rev. Margaret Gunness

Let your Life Speak:
Listening for the Voice of Vocation

by Parker Palmer
Jossey-Bass, 1999

Parker Palmer is a Quaker, a teacher, an extremely honest, thoughtful and gentle man, who is not afraid to face his own sense of failure and of feeling lost. Nor is he afraid to discuss openly the truth of his own battles with depression. It is clear to me in reading this book that he has indeed let his own life speak to him and that through writing about it he is encouraging us to examine our own live—to listen carefully to what they are saying to us.

Yet there’s an important distinction to be made here: Many of us think we’re listening to our lives when what we’re really doing is listening to the old, haunting “tapes” from childhood—a parent who said we were too lazy or too fat or too self-centered; our peers who called us a sissy or a tomboy; a beloved teacher who encouraged us and said we had good insights and ideas. All of these voices continue to reverberate within us, sometimes silently, sometimes in a voice loud enough to wake the dead places within us. They have a way of mercilessly setting standards for us that we try desperately to attain. They also have a way of surprising us with the comfort of a long hidden understanding. So it’s important for us to learn how to use these memories as guidelines and pathways, as we seek to let the life that is uniquely ours speak to us unencumbered and in truth and clarity.

So now, on with our study of Let Your Life Speak, by Parker Palmer.

What comes to my mind immediately are the words of another of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, who issued this same invitation to his readers in his book titled, Listen to Your Life:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.

His words offer another clear indication that we would be wise to listen intentionally to the voice of our own lives and to discern what our very soul is saying to us in the depths of our being, there where truth abides. As we listen to ourselves, we can become ourselves.

Consider, for example, the word integrity. To seek integrity implies that we engage in seeking to discover and then to conduct our lives in such a way that accords with the wholeness of our being. The word integrity itself is fascinating. Both integrity and integral come from the same root word, integer, which means a whole number as distinguished from a fraction or a mixed number, hence a complete entity, undivided, not to be fractured into multiple parts, but whole, undivided. (Source: Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary) In keeping with this definition, we could say that to let our lives speak and to then to listen to them carefully is the first and necessary step to personal integrity.

So think about your own integrity for a moment:

What have you based the building of your integrity on? What others say of you? Who your parents tried to mold you to become? Or on who you believe God created and is calling you to be? Answering these questions leads us to ask further: Are you intentional then about your actions, and about the decisions and choices that govern them? Are you aware of trying to be sure that your words and actions fall close to the plumb line of your soul?

Have you intentionally tried to base your integrity on letting your life speak to you, speak to you about who you are, about what your capabilities really are and about what your goals and purposes really are in a given situation or decision?

Have you examined your own sense of your integrity in the dialogue of your prayer and the response of the Spirit moving within you? Could you write a description of your integrity? of your integral self?

These are the kinds of questions that are involved, I think, in letting our life speak to us and in trying to listen to its voice.

Then the inevitable “How to?” questions come to the fore. How do we let our life speak? How can we listen to it and not get tangled in our own subjectivity? How can we find and recognize truth? I don’t have a definitive answer. These are hard questions and each one of us has to find our own way. But I will offer some guidelines, some suggestions for you to use as seems best for you.

First, as people of faith, we can let our lives speak by holding them up next to what we understand through our faith—through scripture, prayer and the teaching of our tradition. Some examples to help get you started:

In Genesis, chapter one: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them…And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:27 & 30)

Think about this: That you and I are created in the very image of God; that we actually reflect God and are called to be like him. What does that say to you about your life? For me that says that my life comes from a good model, as it were; that the source of my life is also a source of enduring love; that confronted with my brokenness, the God who created me still loves me, patiently. These are but some examples. How do these words from Genesis inspire you? What do they make you understand about your life? Do they reassure you? encourage you? comfort you? (The word comfort comes from two root words meaning with and strength.) So I invite you to listen to what your life might be saying to you through your awareness of these words from Genesis.

Or look further in scripture, in the Book of Exodus. Here, Moses asks God what his name is, and God replies, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). What I think is being held up before us here is nothing less than the integrity of God, and it’s the same integrity that God desires for us! So ask yourself, “How integrated am I? How integrated is my life? Do I feel one way and act another? Believe one thing and say another? Or to go one step deeper, “Do I really know myself well?” In French there are two words for the verb "to know.” Savoir means to know as a fact, for example “I know what time it is.” Connaitre means to know more in the sense of understanding or of intimacy, for example, “I know my sister very well.” Which of these verbs do you think best applies to your knowing of yourself?

Or Shakespeare, in Hamlet, has Polonius saying to Laertes:

This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Or a statement I’ve known and depended on for so long that I can no longer recall who wrote it. For some 15-20 years it has been taped inside the front cover of my Prayer Book:

We show a lack of faith in God by a lack of faith in ourselves as proceeding from God’s creative act.

To let our life speak—to let it speak truthfully and to hear it truthfully—requires, I believe, that we be very intentional about it. There are surely many, many ways to do this. Some people seek the help of a therapist or a counselor. Some can listen to their life through prayer and worship in a faith community. Some write their reflections in a journal, and the act of writing helps them to clarify their perceptions. Here is a list of some particular “ways in,” some of which may be helpful to you. Use them as a guide, adapt them to your needs, or if they are of no use to you at all, try to find your own best pathway by which you, too, can truly “Let Your Life Speak.”

Let your life speak...

As you reflect on a friendship or on a awkward relationship you may have with someone.

As you look at the world of nature—a tree, the ocean, or the face of a street person—or as you hear a symphony or the sound of the wind and rain. All of these are talking to you; all are voices of God talking to you. Listen and hear what they are saying.

As you think about your work, be it in an office or at home, in the yard or in the kitchen. Is your work, wherever it may be, fulfilling to you? Does it use your talents? What are your talents? Where did they come from? How have they been nurtured or belittled, used well or left to wither?

As you pray or worship. Can you let your life speak to you through being in dialogue with God? Do you hear something of your life in the music of the church, or when you receive the bread and wine of Communion? Can you let your life speak as you pray/reflect alone in silence?

Listen through the voice of your emotions, in what you love or in the action of loving; in the things that make you angry or the things that make you sad or that move you to tears.

Let your life speak through your awareness of getting older. What is your relationship to your aging body? Your aging mind? How do you relate to how you look? How can you listen and hear both God’s voice and your own in your reactions to the awareness that you are growing older?

Let your life speak through the current events of this time in history that we now inhabit. There is confusion and deep fear in America now. So much is unknown, unknowable. It’s inevitable that many of our values will come into conflict with each other— privacy and public service, risk and self-protection, trust in a God of peace and the reality of hatred that others harbor towards the Christian faith.

So how will you live now—within yourself, your family, your circle of friends? Can you maintain a core of peace and trust within yourself? What is your reaction likely to be if a total change in life style is required of our society? In such a time, as is now and may well become, what is the nature of your trust in God? What do you pray for? Let your life speak to you as you pay attention to your reaction to these events.

Perhaps related to the events of these days, or perhaps independent of them, spend some time imagining that a great personal sacrifice will be required of you. How would you want to be able to handle it? How do you think you would handle it? Notice that facio (make) + sacre (sacred) = sacrifice, to make sacred or holy.

In the closing pages of his little book, Parker Palmer gives us some suggestions, some encouragement about how we ourselves can listen to our own lives, about steps we can take and avenues we can follow. They sound very wise to me.

He begins by emphasizing the importance of what he calls "inner work." He makes several recommendations as to how to do this, leaving us to choose the pathway best suited to us. He suggests we develop our interior life, and I agree that it is most important to do this and do it intentionally, especially in a world such as ours, which seems more to invite us into its busyness and noise.

Other suggestions are regular periods of prayer, someone to talk with about how to pray, reading (and not just spiritual books, but fiction, poetry, newspaper articles, history—listening for the voice of God in all of these. In fact, that's precisely what this online book group has as its primary goal!). Spending some time alone—out walking, sitting in a museum before a beautiful piece of art, going to the local zoo....What would you like to do? Whatever it is, try to see it as a type of prayer and be aware that God is with you, accompanying you.

His second recommendation is that we develop relationships that protect our aloneness. This is a most subtle recommendation, and it depends in part on the people whom we choose to invite into the deeper parts within us. Palmer describes them as people who can be "supportive but not invasive." This can be a difficult balance to find, for some perhaps more than for others. But I do believe that it is important to take seriously and to move carefully.

His third recommendation is to strive to overcome our fears. We often need a companion to help us do this, someone who can guide us to see what is truly to be feared and what is but a chimera. His Hurricaine Island instructor was this for him, and I believe so was the friend who came to rub his feet every day when he was in the midst of depression. Turn to places of trust and hope, he suggests, rather than places where fear and self-degredation reside.

It may be helpful to some of you to read this little book a second or a third time, looking for suggestions you need as you try to grasp its wisdom which speaks more specifically to the particular ways you seek to grow and heal.

In closing up this first of the series of online book studies, I state this premise:

I believe that we, as people who strive to be faithful Christians, can only dare to let our lives speak their searching words in the context of believing in God—in the love of God and in God’s full and irreversible acceptance of us—and believing in the reality of life. In my understanding, one of the most significant things that the very life of Christ indicates is God’s full and irreversible acceptance of us. You are accepted. And this acceptance makes it safe for us to let our lives speak and to hear the deep and hidden truths they are inviting us to know, to enter and to live. The more we let our lives speak and the more we listen, the more we will be able to hear God speaking to us, in and through our life itself

Copyright ©2001 Margaret Gunness

Let Your Life Speak

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