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Spiritual Direction with Howard Thurman-Session 1

August 26, 2014
Photo by Chris Nickels

Photo by Chris Nickels

I am using the book 40-Day Journey with Howard Thurman for regular reflection and meditation. Periodically I plan to share some thoughts and reflections that emerge from this time of engaging with selections of Thurman’s writings and various scripture passages.

Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
    and make mere flesh their strength,
    whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
    and shall not see when relief comes. -Jeremiah 17:5-6 NRSV


To what do I appeal when I want to convince myself that I am somebody?

-Howard Thurman (1)

Dr. Thurman’s question unearths some factors that shape me more than I usually like to admit. To answer his question I seem to go straight to thinking about personal accomplishments, big or small, noticed or unnoticed. Even then, I don’t always feel like “somebody.” Another problem with this kind of response is that it doesn’t always help because I also have a tendency to endlessly compare myself with others. I try to find a balance between pride in my accomplishments while not being envious of others’. This line of reflection leads me to acknowledge that I too easily drift into anxiousness and into believing the myth that I am self-made.

There exists a powerful American cultural myth (I notice it here in the suburbs) that claims you can (should?) be successful on your own strength. A religion of individualism, and probably competition too. Yet this myth is one way to become an “undernourished” desert shrub, similar to the state Dr. Thurman described in his commentary on Jeremiah 17:5-6. When I am tempted to buy into this myth, the voices of Jeremiah and Dr. Thurman speak prophetically to me saying, “Don’t be a shrub!”

Individualism is not a place of nourishment. Community-while not perfect-is a place God forms me and nourishes me. There I can learn from others lives and stories. There I can give and receive counsel. I am reminded that the community of Jesus offers a counter-narrative and an interdependence-a way to resist the self-made, self-reliant myth.

Attempting to answer Dr. Thurman’s question points me back in the proper direction: I am a follower of Jesus and part of a family. And that is enough.

[1] Schaper, Donna, and Howard Thurman. 40-day Journey with Howard Thurman (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009), 22.


  1. Robert Martin permalink
    August 27, 2014 10:52 am

    I think there’s some other things that play into that myth of self-reliance. I know of folks who have found themselves damaged by people who have said they care for them. People who have been overly dependant (co-dependant) on others. And, in their attempt to heal from the past and seperate themselves from that old way, go too far the other direction and refuse help. To them, it feels like a “step backwards”. “I don’t want to be dependant on anyone ever again!”…

    Those are the most challenging cases of that individualism… because there is so much pain behind it. It’s not a cultural myth, but a symptom of deep pain… and it takes a lot of radical love to get through that pain…

  2. August 27, 2014 12:26 pm

    Rob, thanks for raising the very important connection between past pain and individualism-so true. I see this a number of times in my pastoral work, and it does take radical love as you mentioned.


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