Whenever my friend Katie and I get together, we half-seriously say that the “clearness committee” is meeting. The term references a classic Quaker practice where a group gathers to help a person gain insight into a problem or make an important decision. I started using this term after reading Parker J. Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness—which is based on the idea of clearness committees—because it describes what happens when Katie and I have long conversations.
In many Sunday schools or Bible studies I’ve attended, leaders ask questions, but these questions have only one answer.
I am not a verbal processor by nature. I prefer to write my way through problems or decisions. When I do share my deeper thoughts, they’re usually things I’ve already mulled over for a while. Conversations generally move too quickly for me to be able to truly reflect and put new ideas together.
Katie is one of the few people I know with whom I can talk and arrive at conclusions I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own. Our talks involve many long silences, where we mull over the topic at hand individually. These silences are interspersed with strings of dialogue where one of us offers up a thought or question, and the other responds. Neither of us feels the need to tie a neat bow on the topic—to pronounce some judgment or pounce on a solution. We are content to let things simmer and see what rises to the surface. Given this hospitable space with a trusted friend, my soul comes out to play.
When was the last time your soul came out to play? I can tell you one thing, sadly—this doesn’t happen too often for me in church. In many Sunday schools or Bible studies I’ve attended, leaders ask questions, but these questions have only one answer. As a participant, I feel cornered into saying the “right” thing, instead of invited to wonder and search honestly for the truth.
When I do venture to share some burning question or gnarly dilemma, many kind and caring Christian sisters and brothers want to help. But “help” often involves rushing to reassure me that God is in control and will solve my problem. In some cases, this is helpful. But I have to wonder, when we do this regularly, if we are not handing people fish, instead of teaching them to fish on their own.
As I mentioned in the last installment of this column, I’ve come to believe that true and sustainable transformation cannot be forced upon us through external pressures, such as following rules or heeding others’ advice. It comes only from within as we listen to our inner voice of truth, God’s Spirit in us. We can learn to listen to our own inner teacher through asking ourselves searching questions. Sometimes, though, this isn’t enough. We may run up against blind spots in our self-examination. Too involved in our own problems, our myopia may prevent us from stepping back to take a long view, from asking key questions. Sometimes, we need others to help us get there.
It might seem easy enough, but making space for the soul to come out of hiding goes against the cultural grain. In his guidelines for circles of trust (modern-day versions of clearness committees), Palmer cautions, “No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.” These tendencies come from our desire to make others (or ourselves) feel better, but it is precisely out of the cauldron of discomfort, of paradoxes not easily resolved, that the heart can break open to new life.
To hold a space for others to work through their own soul paradoxes, we should ask open and honest questions. “An honest question,” Palmer writes, “is one I can ask without possibly being able to say to myself, ‘I know the right answer to this question, and I sure hope you give it to me.’” “What is the biblical solution to this?” is not an honest question, if you already have an answer in mind that you’re trying to draw out. Something like, “What past experiences might be useful to you in your current dilemma?” is. “How do you feel about the situation you just described?” is open, whereas, “Do you feel any anger?” is not.
One summer during my college years, my parents seemed on the verge of splitting up. I met up with Katie in an alpha version of our clearness committee, walking countless circles around her Houston subdivision. She listened without judgment and asked clear-eyed questions. I discovered that I had the capacity to be present to the deep brokenness in my family without walling myself off to the pain and letting the heaviness push me into the ground.
The issues that press on my soul today—how to respect and learn from people whose opinions seem antithetical to my own or how to bring up two boys in a world of mass shootings and easily accessible pornography, for example—are ones that summon the deepest of my own inner resources, as well as wisdom beyond myself. I am so grateful to Katie and others who have helped me access my soul’s resources, as well as others’ wisdom. I hope that by asking open and honest questions and listening patiently, I can make space for others to find a way through their own dilemmas. Together, I trust, we will hear that quiet, everlasting Voice.