Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction


“I challenge you to get through a chapter of this book without a desire for God being struck in your soul. Roger Owens wears his brilliance lightly and loves words tenderly and lavishly in these pages. He is ferociously gifted, and fast becoming one of the abbas to whom the reading church often turns for a word from the Lord.”

-Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church and a Fellow in Theology & Leadership at Duke Divinity School


With a style and warmth of presentation that will ...

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Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction

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“I challenge you to get through a chapter of this book without a desire for God being struck in your soul. Roger Owens wears his brilliance lightly and loves words tenderly and lavishly in these pages. He is ferociously gifted, and fast becoming one of the abbas to whom the reading church often turns for a word from the Lord.”

-Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church and a Fellow in Theology & Leadership at Duke Divinity School


With a style and warmth of presentation that will remind readers of Henri Nouwen’s most popular work, Abba Give Me a Word interweaves the author’s personal stories of struggle – and transformation – with reflections on the history and purpose of spiritual direction. The result is a wise introduction to an ancient art and practice of “soul care” – directed at Christians of all backgrounds.


“This is a guide for those eager for a serious yet joyful journey from isolation to communion. It is about companionship on the greatest journey anyone can undertake. It is about kindness in the old sense of the word.”

-Alan Jones is dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and the author of Soul Making

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557257994
  • Publisher: Paraclete Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2012
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 1,149,874
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

L. Roger Owens (PhD Duke University) is the co-pastor, together with his wife Ginger Thomas, of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, Durham, North Carolina.


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Abba, give me a word

the path of spiritual direction
By L. Roger Owens


Copyright © 2012 L. Roger Owens
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55725-799-4

Chapter One


A young man just out of college and beginning a master of divinity degree at a nearby seminary sent me an e-mail saying he'd like to talk. Lonnie came into my office and sat in one of the two newly upholstered Victorian-style low chairs I had pilfered from a sitting room in the church when my wife and I had become the co-pastors six months earlier. One of my more superficial longings had always been to have an office of my own, a quiet place to read and write and think and work. When Ginger and I became co-pastors of this church, she got the real senior pastor's office—the one with two doors and two chambers, the outer chamber with the big oak desk and the couch and rocking chairs, appropriate for looking important and doing marriage counseling and having small meetings to discuss budgets and the like—and a small inner office, what I call the inner sanctum, the private reading, writing, and praying room of the senior pastor. I'm not bitter that she got the grander space. It is also the office people go to when they have a question or a complaint, because it has a gold engraved plaque on the door that says "Pastor." People know where to find her.

I got the storage room tucked away in the corner of the church's library, a quiet, out-of-the-way room with no more than a few boxes and piles of books when we arrived. We quickly found an unused desk, and I put two rickety wooden chairs next to one another so that I might show at least minimal hospitality by inviting someone to sit. And then someone told me these would not do, even for the pastor with the library closet office. He told me about the two Victorian green chairs. I moved them in and thought they would do until I had time to find something more my style. But they are still here, and they are the chairs people like Lonnie sit in, and sometimes cry in, and often laugh in when they have made a discovery and want to talk to me about it.

Lonnie seemed a little unsure how exactly to put into words what he needed to say. But it ended up something like this: I'm a new husband and a young man and a Christian, and there's a lot of stuff I don't know, especially about how to be good and faithful at any of these things. And I don't know how to pray. And I want to love God. My own dad was a pretty bad example of how to live, especially how to love. I want more than he had to show me. I want to be holy as a husband and as a Christian and eventually as a father, but I don't know how.

So far so good. Then he dropped the bomb.

"I was wondering if you might be able to mentor me."

I hope he didn't notice me glance over my shoulder to see if there was an old, wise-looking, gray-haired man standing behind me, to whom he might have been talking. But no, he was looking at me and talking to me, and he must have thought that the two gray hairs in my otherwise dark brown goatee qualified me as wise. And while at that moment I felt like an amateur—all the ancient teachers on spiritual direction would tell you to find someone with more knowledge and experience than I possessed—I did understand one thing. I understood his longing, the longing to learn a life with God, to pray, to live well, the longing for guidance from someone wise. I had discovered the same longing in myself a few years earlier.

Beneath the longing for an office of my own or a plaque on my door or a big desk that made me look important, I had discovered a longing for God and for someone who could show me how to find the God I was longing for.

The search for spiritual direction begins with a discovery. Not many people begin relationships of spiritual direction—or begin practicing any of the spiritual disciplines—because someone told them to or they read in a book like this one that having a spiritual guide is a good idea, even though it is. You begin the search for direction in the ways of prayer and in a life lived in the house of God's love because you have discovered a longing. I know this was the case for me, and I suspect it is the case for most others.

* * *

I had an old, gray-haired man in my life for almost thirty-four years. He was even wise sometimes. I called him Dad.

Dad was fifty-five when I was born, so his hair was thinning and gray as far back as I can remember. When my brother and I were kids, one of our favorite games was to stand behind Dad as he sat in his green recliner watching the Chicago Cubs lose on a Saturday afternoon and play with his hair. We'd comb it the wrong way, make it stand up straight, then watch it slowly begin to fall. Dad rented a small sales office in a beauty parlor, so we spent more hours than we can count watching women get shampoos and perms and sit under the domed dryers with curlers in their hair. After all that, we thought we knew what we were doing. But we never dared try to curl or cut or color his silvery tufts. We would just run the black comb he always had slipped in his back pocket through his hair and feel its silkiness with our fingers.

Dad was typical of his generation—he didn't speak much about things of the heart or the soul, so I didn't learn this stuff from him. He taught us a lot, mostly by example, not by having heart-to-hearts. Men of his generation don't have heart-to-hearts. They work. They watch baseball. They throw baseballs with their kids. They teach them to fish. Dad taught me how to golf and to tie a tie. He taught me things he didn't even know he was teaching me, so now when I play with my own children, or wear tennis shoes with my khakis, or I don't care if the blue in my plaid shirt matches the blue of my sweater, I can see his influence.

He taught by example—I learned by osmosis. But there are regions of my soul this kind of teaching never touched.

One thing Dad didn't do was talk about faith or God. If he had a rich inner life, and he might have had, I had no way to know it. Not only was Dad typical of his generation in this way, Dad was also a midwesterner. Born in Indiana, he spent the summers of his youth in Chicago. He lived the rest of his life in Indiana, except for the few years he was in the Army Air Corps. And there is something about midwesterners—they don't wear their inner life on their shirtsleeves. While there is much of my dad's life I can see in myself, there is one part of his life that stayed a mystery to me—his soul.

Dad's faith was the habitual churchgoing kind. He loved going to church. He was a traveling salesman, and whenever he was gone over a weekend he would bring home the bulletin from the United Methodist Church where he had worshiped on Sunday morning. When he was home he was always the first in the car on Sunday, not just to warm the car on cold days or cool it on warm days, but because of his eagerness to get to church and shake hands with the friends he hadn't seen in a week. Many Sundays he was an usher, and he relished the job of standing at his post and greeting worshipers with a handshake, a bulletin, and a jolly smile.

I think I learned this from him as well, because I am a habitual churchgoer, always the first one ready in my house, and not just because I'm the preacher.

But I didn't learn prayer, how to understand the motions of pain and sorrow, joy and hope that are like tides in the soul's depths. His life shed no light on that for me. I had grown up in a house with a father who taught me everything other fathers teach their kids. But I didn't learn the one thing I needed most—how to live in the house of the Father, in that Love that is our truest home while we are here.

When I turned thirty, I began to discover this longing—a longing for God and for someone who could show me how to love God. I wanted a fatherlike figure who could help me peer into my own soul and not be overcome by the darkness or blinded by the light. As my own life began to settle—graduate school was ending and I had a family and a job—I began to sense an emptiness in soul-depths I never knew I had.

* * *

When I was eighteen, I moved out of my father's house to go to college. I'd had an experience of God (that's another story) and felt called to be a preacher. I went to college and studied religion and philosophy, and I discovered something called theology—the reasoned and systematic investigation of Christian belief and practice. And I was taken. From that point on I wanted to be a theologian. I thought being a theologian would make me the best pastor possible.

I somehow missed what the early Christian monk Evagrius of Pontus had to say about theologians: "If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian."

I skipped the so-called practical courses in seminary and stuck with the heady seminars—Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, who wasn't a theologian, obviously, but was influential on the theologians I liked best. And after three years, I finished a master of divinity degree, and four years later I was a year away from finishing my PhD. I was almost a theologian.

I had never given up on the idea of being a preacher—there was something almost romantic for me about being a pastor-theologian, a resident scholar in a church who could answer all the congregants' questions, teach with eloquence, write articles and books on the side, attend conferences, and teach a course or two at the nearest college or seminary. So my wife and I asked our bishop to appoint us to a church together, where we could share one job and have time for our children and for me to finish my degree and keep reading and writing. The bishop agreed, and in June 2005 we loaded our two boys in the station wagon, hoped the moving truck would find the way, and drove to Christ United Methodist Church, a small rural congregation six miles outside of Louisburg, North Carolina.

And here, armed with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, as Dr. Seuss put it, I began to discover the poverty of my spirit.

One of the duties I inherited as pastor was teaching two adult weekday Bible studies, one on Tuesday morning, the other on Tuesday night. A small group of seniors had been meeting every Tuesday morning for years before I got there. The evening class had been meeting together for fifteen years, and they would tell you, if you asked them, that they were the backbone of the church, the most committed and stalwart members—and they were right. They served on all the committees, did most of the work to prepare for church activities such as potlucks and the fall festival, and were probably the biggest givers to the church. These two groups were used to having the pastor every Tuesday come and talk to them about Scripture. So when Ginger and I were dividing up tasks, I got the Tuesday Bible studies.

Early in that first year we were studying the book of Ephesians. I spent Mondays preparing. I read commentaries. Sometimes I translated the text. I tried to figure it out so I could help them figure it out.

And then something disconcerting happened. I discovered verses I couldn't figure out. And it seemed as though these verses were speaking directly to me.

The book of Ephesians has some wonderful passages, but the verses I remember most, because they were the verses God used to awaken me to some deeper realities of life with God about which I had been unaware, were from chapter five. As we muddled through, we came to these verses: "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord" and "So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." In a way I had never experienced before, these verses spoke to me, not as a puzzle to be figured out, an academic exercise in discovering what some ancient writer meant, but as if they were addressed to me—Roger, do you know what is pleasing to the Lord? Do you know what the Lord's will is? Do you know how to discern?

I didn't know how to discern. I didn't know how to listen. I didn't know what it meant to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. This was a mystery to me. And it was a mystery to the folks in the Bible study. I was the deaf leading the deaf.

This experience set off a chain reaction. I began to notice other verses in the Bible: "pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances"; "discern what is the will of the Lord"; "present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God"; "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." These weren't verses any longer about God—they were words to me about the mystery of life with God, and they highlighted one thing—my poverty.

But they were also the beginning of a longing for someone who could show me the way.

When I wasn't at the church, I was either visiting or at home with my two young boys. And my growing longing made me ask: What are they learning from me? What can they learn from me? What do I have to teach them? With a pair of blue eyes and a pair of brown eyes looking at me, these boys were not old enough to tell me what they needed or expected, but they were already old enough to start imitating—old enough to learn. What were they learning from me? As we lived in this church-owned house together, what did I have that I could teach them about living in the house that is the love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit?

How could I teach them if no one had taught me?

* * *

I'm just guessing, but you have very likely already begun to make this discovery. You are becoming aware of at least a vague sense of longing for God—maybe not yet the deer-panting-for-streams-of-flowing-water kind of longing for God. It may be a simple restlessness. But it's there and you know it.

And I suspect this longing for God is already associated with a longing for guidance—why else would you read books on the spiritual life?

Where can you go for help? Who can show you the way?

This is where the search for spiritual direction begins. But it might be some time before you come to the conclusion that what you need is a flesh-and-blood spiritual director, or before you find the right one. In the meantime, there are ways you can deepen this discovery and continue to cultivate the longing. These are practices that can take us all the way through the practice of spiritual direction, but they are particularly appropriate here at the beginning, at the recognition of that initial sense of desire—for God and for guidance.

And they are quite simple. The first is—find a pen and a few blank pages and begin to write about it. Don't know what to write? Try writing what I call a "longing list." At the top of a blank sheet of paper write, "What do I want?" And then begin to make a list of the things you are longing for. Don't try to be pious. No one is looking over your shoulder to see if you are longing for the right things. Just begin. You might want to commit to writing for five minutes without stopping or thinking too much. Just write.

If I were writing my longing list today, it would probably begin with "a new van." It would have the names of a few books. Now that we have two boys and a baby girl, the list would say, somewhere, "a little peace and quiet." Sleep would be on it for sure (which is more of a spiritual longing than most would think). Maybe the van would come up again—or at least a new door on the old van. The list would be boring, mundane.

If yours is boring and mundane, that's okay. Maybe you'll need to start again tomorrow. Do this for three days. What do I want? What am I longing for? Write.

Sooner or later, I imagine, depending on how far along you are in making the discovery, the words on the list are going to be more like this: peace, rest (not in the "I-need to-take-a-nap" sense, but in the "rest-for-my-weary-soul" sense), quiet, hope, love—or to be loved—life, strength. Maybe you write a line from a hymn you used to sing growing up—strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

And then maybe the word "God" will show up on the list, or maybe just "Love," but this time you wrote it with a capital letter. Perhaps, "Direction." You long to know where you're headed and how to get there.

It's useless to ask which of these longings are better—a new van is real and relevant to me right now. The point is not to judge the things closer to the top of the list. But the pen can be like an archaeologist's pick, helping us slowly move through the layers of longing that characterize all of our lives, to get below the everyday, obvious longings and to get to the bottom, to the foundational longings that in some mysterious ways give shape to all the rest.


Excerpted from Abba, give me a word by L. Roger Owens Copyright © 2012 by L. Roger Owens. Excerpted by permission of PARACLETE PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION My Father's House....................vii
ONE Longing....................1
TWO Finding....................23
THREE Releasing....................47
FOUR Offering....................73
FIVE Trusting....................97
SIX Attending....................119
CONCLUSION Go Well....................145
FOR FURTHER READING....................170
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