Nudges and Leadings

The interior presence of Christ moved within us and centered and renewed our dispersed lives and from time to time laid on us things to be done.
—Douglas Steere
Gleanings, A Random Harvest

Nudges and leadings! You can’t pickle them, you can’t stuff them in a can, you can’t roll them off an assembly line. You can’t eat them, drink them, or paste them in a book. You can’t see them and you can’t hold them in your hand. Yet they are there.

"Where?" my engineer-Methodist husband asked recently. In normal, everyday life, discernment can be as difficult as finding something while blindfolded. Or it can burst from slumbering embers to sudden flame lighting a horizon you’ve only imagined. Or limp along in streams of prods or jabs or hunches that converge on one spot like a pilgrimage.

Few people—but only a few—can say it strikes like greased lightning seconds be-fore an impending rape/homicide. I can.

It was early on a Sunday. The fragrance of many gardens drifted up and down my street when a stranger appeared at my door asking for a phone book. I watched him write a number; he thanked me and walked away. Or so I thought. I was wrong. One minute my hands clutch the book, the next, a man I’d never seen before is backing me through the house, warning "Don’t scream." His hands paw at my throat. I gulp air for strength. Fingers tighten. "Jesus," I whisper, "Help me. Now." But, of course this was impossible.

Against his strength, I weigh my own weakness. I hear my neighbors milling around getting ready for church. I smell their coffee. But in my kitchen no air moves. The stranger lets go his grip, walks to my old screen door and picks up the hook lock ready to drop it in its eyehole like a dagger. Suddenly, from somewhere deep in my psyche comes a mental command: "Crouch behind him. Circle a foot around his body. Kick open the screen door." He yanks my shoulders. I fight.

I’m half inside the house . . . half outside. Flower pots fall. Dangling vines tear loose. He shoves. I scream. Sirens. Police. Questions.

Where did the inner voice come from? I know only a tiny piece of the answer. Nudges and leadings may arrive anytime, anyplace. They may tap you as a glint, a flicker, a prod, a punch, a burst, an ultimatum. And they leave you wondering how such eagle-winged spiritual pricks—such mysterious pinholes of awareness—can illuminate a whole new landscape like a summer sunrise. And they give you hope.

You don’t need to know how the process works, or how the Spirit’s promptings jibe with the future. You don’t need to prove their existence. But you know when you are grabbed.

On a beautiful fall morning two years ago Jean Roberts, sitting in her Bellevue, Washington, home was trying to comprehend the tragedy of terrorism when she looked down at the page of the book she had just been reading and felt what Carl Jung called synchronicity. The book had been written 60 years before, in the midst of World War II, but the title looming up to her that day, September 11, 2001, was: "The New Skyline."

A spiritual jerk can be startling. It came as a shock years ago to Bud Beard, a bank executive recovering in a hospital from a minor foot ailment that had suddenly turned major. "I had been lying there without pain," he later told those of us praying for him through the ordeal. "I was bored but not anxious or depressed. Then, suddenly, I heard a voice as clear as my wife’s, say, ‘Bud, why don’t you pray?"’

"He took it to heart," his doctor told us. "He prayed with a new closeness. That day became the day of his turnaround."

Both nudges and leadings have confused, warned, mystified, awed, and guided men and women down through the ages, trailing a brilliant aura of possible meanings and jarring open doors that otherwise might have remained shut. I well recall my first shock with this eerie, seemingly impossible extension of mind. It haunted me for a long time and its flavor returns even today.

As the young wife of a weekly newspaper editor, I found myself frequently attending evening meetings taking notes. One night I drove to a city council meeting in a strange town and, while driving home on a small country road, discovered I was almost out of gas and lost. Each dark farm loomed like a menace. I was a stumbling, beginning prayer in those days but I managed to mumble a few desperate words. Then I pulled into a driveway to turn around and as I backed out, a sign gleamed like a dog’s eyes in the car’s headlights. Not just gleamed—the five letters clung like gum on a boot: (Y-I-E-L-D). Was it tailored for me? It made absolutely no sense. Motorist warnings are never spiritual signs. And yet, in the nudge-world I believe they can be. All the way home, I wrestled my problem. Was it my marriage? It wasn’t going well but what’s that got to do with finding the highway back to town? And how much more could I yield that I hadn’t already? Weeks bled into months, and months into years. Eventually, I’d be given the answer. It would come like a cold plunge. That night, I just drove the path in front of me until it opened onto a turnoff that led me home.

Then, a week later, I met a fellow club member who had refused her employer’s request to give an evening dinner speech to their retirees. "You know I can’t get up before a group," she said to the company vice president, but he would not take no for an answer. "So, I prayed about it," she recalled. "I got in the car and started driving. I came up a hill. I caught sight of a church billboard that read, ‘Next Sunday’s Sermon: What Do You Mean You Can’t?’ It struck me so hard. I wrote the speech, got a standing ovation, and was invited back."

But, was this "far-out-ness" for me? I hadn’t heard about it in church. Or college. Today, I sense that the average person gets many nudges and leadings, labels them "coincidences," and takes no more note of them. The Bible hints at this kind of endeavor in several ways: "I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way that thou shalt go. I will guide thee with mine eye." (Ps. 32:8) "Ask thee a sign of the Lord, thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above." (Isa. 7:11)

But what about misinterpretation? Serious discernment devotees tell me the best way to get to get the most out of nudges and leadings is give them a chance and stay open. Accumulation itself can point toward the unseen. Consider the words of Quaker theologian Douglas Steere that he spoke to me many times: "The man himself must be willing to trust the flash and follow the path it opened to him." In time nudges can be seen as steppingstones, and fall into categories. Here, to me, are some of the more important ones.

Prompting: Our weekly newspaper job shop employed reporters in several towns. One reporter, Martha, was in an unresolved relationship and had asked through prayer for insight. She received none. The weeks passed and winter melted away. Still skeptical of the other party’s intentions, she prayed fervently and one Sunday walked into a new church and sat in a pew in the back, bowing her head. Her heart began to pound with a strange excitement, she said, "as if something were speaking to me in that old cathedral with its windows bearing the names of original settlers." When I asked her to explain, she said, "I looked up to see the sun blaze through a single word in the stained glass window closest to my pew. I didn’t try to argue it away. A message from God is an outstanding thing. And it came in a family name common to the area. The name, ‘Lust.’ I broke off the relationship."

Underlining Nudge: I was working in a rural area watching transcontinental planes flying over the farm where I rented a room. Their booming noise every day lured my thoughts across the continent to the far north. Alaska was my destination. I overflowed with a determination to trade my office job for one 4,000 miles away and bring my youngest son there to go to college. I wrote letters, prayed, pictured, affirmed, searched magazines, interviewed travelers, and placed ads. The sleek, chiseled power of those 747s became for me a promise. I held myself as malleable as possible in case something I might not be expecting came along. A year went by. One night while driving on a busy street, I stopped at a traffic light and lightly tapped the car ahead of me. It bore an Alaska license plate.

Then at a prayer meeting I met a visitor from Fairbanks whose daughter, teaching in Alaska, knew of a job I might fill at her school. I pictured myself teaching library there. My antennas went up. I scanned billboards and street signs and noted words uttered here or there that seemed to help me hang on to my hope. I scooped up crumbs of encouragement and grasped onto nudges that hadn’t yet evolved to electrical flickers. One morning my phone jangled. It was a call from Anchorage—a university president was offering me a job as his secretary, an airline ticket, and an apartment with a computer, a telephone, and a view of the mountain range that surrounds that city. Within months I was landing in the "Great Land" and stayed 20 years.

Delayed Nudge: One Saturday while walking to the corner laundromat with the wash, I found myself stepping over about 20 copies of Reader’s Digest that littered the sidewalk as if someone had spilled their trash. The moment froze for me. Was this a sign to a wannabee writer? I could hardly stand the thought of just waiting, doing nothing. So I sent off a story, which came back rejected. I let bitterness take over my feelings. But then a prayer warrior (a person who prays frequently and who keeps track of the results of prayers by oneself and others) cautioned, "Don’t give up. God’s ways aren’t our ways. There’s always more grace where that came from. We struggle and writhe and bleed, and then one day we are adjudged ready and the way will open."

Our Creator often gives us a string of hints to stay on the path for whatever is intended for us to do at a later time. In my case, it took 15 years of floundering. One day I called up Reader’s Digest with an idea about a story on Alaska. I wrote it and sent it, and they accepted it for publication. It was the start of 40 published stories in national magazines. But was "yielding to the trash" back then—that is, the happenstance of finding tossed-away copies of Reader’s Digest, and then praying to discover its meaning—a connection to my future? I think it was fantasy. But within the fantasy lay the possibility that it was Otherness saying, "I know where you are. I know what you are doing. Don’t lose faith. Keep going."

This whole experience relates to conversations I had with Douglas Steere. He told me he had a formula he used for discerning God’s will in situations where you find yourself questioning what, if anything, they mean to the deeper dimentions of your life. You ask two questions: "What is the situation saying?" (I nearly stumbled over 20 trashed magazines in, of all places, the street outside my apartment.) And, "What is the situation saying to me?" (The trashed magazines were a glimpse into my future—an awareness that made no sense at the time but which was to blossom many years later.) Douglas Steere said that after you ask yourself the two questions you look at the space in between—at the difference between the answers to each. That is your cue, even though it may only be scaffolding to more questions.

No one can judge the weavings of the Spirit or the struggles of convincement in another person’s life. One year I felt led to travel across the country. I met nudge-followers, one of whom started a co-op (called a commune in those days), and since I was offered a mattress on the cellar floor and it was a cold November, I stayed on a week, and got to know 25 other searchers in the big house. I met people who had skirted tragedy, started businesses, and found mates. I came away believing, as Thomas Kelly says in The Eternal Promise, "To find this ‘indwelling Christ’ actively, dynamically working within us is to find the secret that Jesus wanted to give people." Listening to their stories comforted me into going deeper into my own.

Preview Nudge: I was driving home from work one evening, mulling over my husband’s anger, when I looked up and saw a vacated storefront bantering seven words: "Stay in touch. Something new coming soon." I took it as a nudge. It was a wisp of a glance of something on the horizon I couldn’t make out. A few weeks later a Christian psychiatrist who be-longed to a church I occasionally attended offered to counsel with me. The further miracle was no fee. He was one of his church’s "helping hands."

Calming Nudge: As a single person living on my own at different times in my life, I have viewed dating as a bloody arena even though other aspects of the endeavor can heal. We are sometimes thrown togeth-er and then later torn apart in our effort to make life less lonely, and we have to drift through a number of people before we find one we can live with. One time, not foreseeing the storm, I found myself the victim of insinuations, unwanted phone calls, and finally an annoy-ing threat. The threat became serious. I went shopping to calm my nerves. I was standing inside the doors of a department store when I glanced up suddenly, my eyes catching a white banner hanging over men’s wear advertising blue jeans. Nudge-wise, it was as if a Greater Power knew. I remember mumbling, "Holy Spirit, are you speaking to me?" (The dangling sign read: No Fear.) The unfurling of a nudge like that is a gift.

Restraining Nudge: I was walking around the Daily News building in Chicago, keeping pace with a hot newspaper story I wanted to follow about a family in China and a family in the United States, each with six sons. This idea for a comparison of lifestyles came to my mind as a complete thought as clearly as the library convention I was attending in the Windy City. If I could sell a big-city newspaper on a freelancer writing it, I could head for Asia. I knew, however, this was all pie in the sky. That kind of bridge-building during the Cold War held merit, but the truth was, I was not free to travel. I was a part-time writer with a marriage weakening day by day. But I asked myself, was this a steppingstone nudge? I had only an hour to find out. I was heading for the large daily during lunch break with a hope they’d let me freelance for them when a feeling of confusion took over. I sensed a spiritual something. It felt like a dare. "Lord," I said, "What would happen if I forgot my longing to write and gave those 60 minutes to you?" Answer: I would lose my only chance to get to the Chicago Daily News. The traffic light turned green. I remember huge lines of traffic like a moving snake when this unruly thought persisted.

The walk signal flickered but my feet were in cement. "Which way, Lord?" I thought, "It is my only window of time to move my dream forward." Something seemed loosening me, questioning me. Was God asking me to yield? The clock ticked on. It was almost time for the afternoon lecture to start. I pictured myself splitting in two directions, part of me to the Daily News and another part to the convention hall. I couldn’t get my head together. I passed a bookstore. I opened the door and went in grappling with a feeling of self-abandonment, my old dream of becoming a writer sagging ankle-level. I tried to appear calm, as though I had not just lived through my only chance to meet an international editor. I purchased Company of the Committed by Elton Trueblood.

"He’s in town today," the clerk said enthusiastically. "He’s speaking here tonight. Can you come back?"

It hit me hard. I was fumbling with a puzzling thought. Should I yield again? I had studied Elton Trueblood’s books in college without once expecting to meet him or any other big-name author. In one sweeping second I slipped into the neurotic fantasy of asking this famous writer I had never met what God thinks about divorce. The idea passed on, but that night after the lecture, it looked me straight in the eye. A large crowd clustered around Elton Trueblood for autographs as I set myself into some kind of spiritual experimentation and let the exiting crowd push me into the hallway. We were heading for elevators. "C’mon, there’s room for one more," I heard someone say. The door closed, catching my skirt.

The elevator lifted. I felt an inward jab that compelled me to pray: "Lord, what would happen if I yielded one more time and let this elevator take me wherever it is going before I head back to my hotel?"

The elevator lifted. I didn’t pray again. Things might have turned out differently if I had. People departed every few floors. Finally, nearly everybody in the elevator faded away. A man exited, saying goodnight to those of us left, and suddenly I found myself stuck between two strange men wondering when they would get off and I could push the button down. They didn’t. I froze as if I had fallen into a science fiction movie. A bell rang. Doors flung open. I found myself in someone’s private living room in the upper Cokesbury Building where I could look out the window to the city far below. Except I didn’t dare move. I was too abashed by this unexpected turn of events to open my mouth. The two men stepped out. One was Elton Trueblood. The other was the pastor of the Cokesbury Methodist Church. I fought in vain for something sensible to say.

"Come along with us," the pastor said, "This elevator is now locked for the night. We’ll take a tiny elevator and go up." I was aching for a way out when the smaller elevator whisked the three of us to the tower. There was no Holy Spirit up here and clearly no way down but to jump. Elton Trueblood thought I was the pastor’s sister. The reverend called me Mrs. Trueblood.

"Your children must come first," Elton Trueblood said the next day when we counseled about divorce. We prayed together. And then he said something I have carried with me ever since: "Others can write about China. You can write about guidance."

In the years since, I have come to believe we live our lives with millions of signs and signals. But with nudges, a unique, fresh breeze begins to blow. They arrive as customized as one’s hairstyle, as personal as one’s toothbrush, shadowed with a far deeper purpose. They seem to say we can dive into God’s grace every day using them as a guidance system to locate our true purpose in life before it is too late. They help us live with the world’s contradictions without being crushed by them. They repeat the powerful message, "You’re not alone."

Marguerite Reiss Kern

Marguerite Reiss Kern, a member of Red Cedar Meeting in Lansing, Mich., is a former librarian who has written for 11 newspapers. She lived in Alaska from 1979 to 1999, including two years in the far north in an athabascan village.