January 21, 2024: Listening to the Spirit with Barbara Toshalis

January 21 Sermon for First Congregational Church UCC of Coloma with Barbara Toshalis

Title: How Do We Listen to the Spirit

Scripture: Luke 24: 13-19, 28-32

1.       Mike: This is the second in a three part message series on discernment. We’ve been pondering what God’s dream for our life is these days and what is God’s call on our life. How do we discern and determine what we are being invited to do and be as we start a new year? 

          I mentioned last week that one of the resources that I’ve found helpful in doing discernment is a Spiritual Director. I started seeing a Spiritual Director 25 years ago during a hard time in my life.

At the time, I was pastoring the Casco United Methodist Church, just north of South Haven. After I was there for four years, we began this new contemporary worship service in addition to having our regular traditional worship service. As a result, many new young families started coming to the church. I thought this was a good thing, but there were some who didn’t like it because these new people weren’t coming to their worship service. So they started complaining about me and my ministry. In addition, Lori and I were struggling in our marriage. 

I felt overwhelmed and discouraged. I was unsure about how to respond and what I was being called to do. It was about that time when I first heard about spiritual directors. I heard they could provide some wisdom and support on one’s spiritual journey. I sure needed wisdom and support. I contacted a Spiritual Director who was also a United Methodist Pastor. I thought he might be able to understand what I was going through. His name was Jerry Toshalis. Jerry was the husband of Barbara who is with us today. He died just a few months ago.

I met with Jerry about once a month or so for the next few years. He was helpful as I navigated through my growing church crisis and my marital crisis. In the end, Lori and I were able to stay together, but the local church and I parted ways.

          I moved up to Pentwater and eventually got another spiritual director. From there, we moved to Kentucky where I couldn’t find a spiritual director. But after I moved back to Michigan, I started seeing one of the sisters of St. Joseph at the Nazareth Campus in Kalamazoo. That lasted for a few years until Lori and I took a Gap Year of Travel. Later, I was at a church retreat when I met the wife of my first spiritual director, Barbara Toshalis. She was leading a workshop for us. She happened to mention she was doing spiritual direction as well. I decided that it would be good for me to get back into some regular spiritual direction. I’ve been meeting with Barbara now for the past six years and have found it extremely helpful.  

2.       Barbara:Thank you, Mike, for your invitation to share our experiences in receiving and offering spiritual direction. I have been receiving and providing S.D. for over 30 years! With my background in Physical Therapy, Psychotherapy, Social Work, and InterPlay, I am so very thankful for the gift of being with others to listen to God and the Spirit within and all around us. Some refer to S.D. as a PROCESS in which one is a spiritual companion, guide, or advisor. I prefer any of those to the term director, which seems hierarchical. A companion, for example, welcomes another in an atmosphere of love and acceptance as she notices movements of the Spirit through thoughts, emotions, sensations, and gestures in order to facilitate peace and love.

3.       Mike: It’s the same type of companion role we find with the resurrected Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The crucifixion and burial of Jesus had recently taken place. The disciples were discouraged and confused. As the Scripture says, “They were sad and gloomy.” It was such a difficult time as they were counting on Jesus to continue to lead them. 

During this challenging time, they were accompanied by a stranger while traveling to the town of Emmaus. The stranger listened to their story and shared some of his own thoughts. The stranger was a companion with them on their journey. Only later did they come to believe that it was Jesus himself who was accompanying them. 

This Scripture is a beautiful metaphor for the way a spiritual director walks alongside someone, helping them see God and God’s path.

          I’m curious, Barbara, about what is most important to you when providing Spiritual Direction or Spiritual Companioning?

4.       Barbara: First, I WELCOME and INVITE the person to SHARE their reasons for coming to meet with me.. At some point I invite them to talk to me about their religious and spiritual journey. I AFFIRM my commitment to honor their being a beloved child of God. What I do not do is superimpose my faith upon theirs….with one exception–I affirm that THEY BELONG,, that God, the Holy One, the Presence, is WITHIN US and WITH us.

5.       Mike: Over the years I know that the message of belovedness has been critical for me. I mentioned earlier about the struggle I was going through 25 years ago. At church, the hostile environment eventually drove away most of those new young families. Our church attendance dropped, especially in that new second contemporary worship service. I felt like such a failure. I had started this new service and now it was collapsing. I felt ashamed. In addition, I felt bad about myself because my marriage was struggling. 

I needed to hear a message that I was loved and had value. I heard that message from my spiritual director. My spiritual director let me know that I was beloved, that I was accepted as I was and that I was known by God who is within me and with me.

6.       Barbara: In silence I invite you to be present to yourself and accept, as best you can, that you are beloved, that you are accepted as you are, and that you are known by your God. End with Amen.

7.       Mike: What else is important for you Barbara as you journey alongside people?

8.  Barbara: Though our histories are formative, I pay most attention to what the directee is NOTICING in the moment: thoughts, breath, physical sensations, location of sensations, images, longings, and emotion. I LISTEN TO THE SPIRIT TO DISCERN how I am called to respond. 

For example, I might invite the directee to let their bodyspirit express what they notice in movement, possibly on behalf of what they notice or for what they long.

9. As we explore together I am sometimes inspired to recommend a PRACTICE, such as a type of prayer. Actually, being present to the flow of our experience is a prayer practice.

10. Another practice I might recommend is the repetition of a phrase in coordination with one’s breathing, such as “I am loved.,” “I am forgiven,”  “I am thankful for….”

11. Another practice I learned from Ira Progoff is to journal in the form of a DIALOGUE. I invite Mike to describe his experience…

12.       Mike: I’ve been journaling using a pen and notebook for most of my adult life. Here’s the notebook journal I started on December 4, 2020. I write at least once a week, often more. Some of what I write is like a diary sharing what happened to me and what I’m dealing with at the time. For example about a year ago on February 1 I wrote: “I’m on the edge of a decision about the Coloma UCC pastorate. My first interview is done. I haven’t received a call back yet… The closer I get to the decision, the more I want the job.”

Later in that same entry I write a couple Breath Affirmations. Barbara mentioned breath affirmations. 

         Let’s take a few moments to do a breath affirmation. Breathe in quietly saying, “I am”. Breathe out saying, “loved.” Breath in saying, “I am.” Breathe out saying, “Loved”.

      Much of my journaling is like a dialogue with God. I write what I’m feeling about my life. Then I write down what I believe God wants to say to me, some wisdom God has for me. Here’s what I wrote a few years ago: 

    “God, It’s a tangled, jumbled mess inside me right now. Help me untangle my twisted strings” 

       God responds in this dialogue I’m writing down: “Rest in me, Michael. Let your roots go deep in my love, in your life and with those around you.”

I say, “Thank you God for my friends.”

God responds: “Love them all and love them deeply…Look at me, Michael”

I say, “Yes.”

God responds: I love you.

Sometimes in my journaling I will write a dialogue with my deceased best friend Allan Byrne. He’s the one who I canoed with in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota for many years. I’ll tell him about what’s happening in the church. He’ll share words of encouragement with me just like he did when he was alive. 

One more example of journalling: A year and a half ago I was talking with Barbara about how I often revert to the 13 year old Michael who anxiously worked to try to earn the approval of adults through trying to get A+++. I still find myself slipping into feeling unworthy and unloved if I’m not overachieving. I mentioned that I thought I moved beyond that a couple years later as a teenager when I had this amazing experience with God and God’s love. Barbara invited me to journal a dialogue between the 13 year old insecure Michael and the 15 year old Michael who experiences unconditional love. So I did that. As I wrote that dialogue I remembered again that I didn’t have to earn love. I wrote “It’s about grace that leads to thankfulness and joy: God’s amazing grace.” 

13.   Mike: So, it’s about experiencing my belovedness and learning about and utilizing prayer practices like breath affirmation and journaling a dialogue. What else is important to you as you journey with others?

14.   Barbara: Forgiveness of oneself, of another. And sometimes forgiveness comes as a graceful act of God, not of our own will. Often forgiveness is a process, not an event. There is mystery in the works of the Spirit.

15.   Mike: Let me share an experience of forgiveness that also involves spiritual direction and dialogue journaling. Over the past few years, my dad and I haven’t been on the same page regarding LGBTQ persons. He has made a lot of derogatory, demeaning and false statements that I’ve found very offensive. Especially as it relates to our lesbian daughter and the way she is parenting in an open gender way.

          A few weeks ago, my dad celebrated his 90th birthday. I pondered whether to go out to South Dakota for that celebration. This subject became a part of my spiritual direction session with Barbara. I eventually decided that I would not go. I said that I didn’t think the conversations we might have if I went out there would be helpful to anyone.

Barbara suggested that it might be good for me to dialogue with my dad in my journal. So I did that. I expressed my anger on paper in that dialogue. I heard what he might say. And by the end of that dialogue on paper, I was able to let it go, to forgive him, and move on. 

17.   Mike: Belovedness, prayer practices, and forgiveness. Is there a another aspect to your spiritual companioning process?

18.   Barbara, Spiritual Direction is about listening to the CALLS OF THE SPIRIT. The more we listen and respond, the more we can HEAL in  body, mind, and spirit. With prayer, awareness, practicing the Presence of God, working toward forgiveness and leaning on the heart of God, we become more alive in the Spirit. With greater healing we are more able to be loving to ourselves and others, even those we consider enemies. 

19. And, during our spiritual practices WE MAY NOTICE A NEW CALL. A new purpose may emerge…



23: Mike: Barbara will be available after the service if you have some questions about spiritual direction. She has a handout with more explanation. We’re so thankful she came to join us. Let’s show our appreciation.

Now as Alexandra shares special music, know that we are in the presence of God. 

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