Fil Anderson: Running on Empty

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Interview of Fil Anderson by Dick Staub

Well good afternoon everybody. You know, today’s church and parachurch ministries seem to attract Type A overachievers whose souls can never catch up to their bodies. Well, that described our next guest until he experienced some life changes that are reflected in his new book, Running On Empty, published by WaterBrook. It’s subtitled, Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers.

Q. And I’m referring to Fil Anderson. And Fil, it’s great to have you with us today.
A. Thank you, Dick, good to be with you.

Q. I want to start with the first time you met Brennan Manning, because he writes the foreword to this book and describes that experience, and you get at it, as you get into your book. He asks you a question, Tell me about the condition of your soul. Now, how did it happen that you met Brennan? And what did that question trigger in you?
A. Well, Brennan and I happened to be at an event together. We had met previously but didn’t really know each other well. We were encouraged at the beginning of the retreat to seek out someone to-to visit with and so I decided that I would approach Brennan. I had an ulterior motive that had nothing to do with the intent of the presenter, I just wanted to meet him, he was famous, and I enjoyed meeting famous folks, and asked if we could spend some time together. I really had no idea that we’d get into such a deep conversation, but it didn’t take him long before he asked about the condition of my soul.

Q. And what did you say when he asked you about the condition of your soul?
A. Dick, I’m sorry, I just cannot hear you.

Q. What did you say when he asked about the condition of your soul?
A. Well, I was stunned yet at the same time I had already begun to feel unusually safe with him. I felt that I was with someone I could trust, someone who, like myself, had struggled a good bit with life. And before I knew it I was really being open and honest with him. And of course the only thing I could say to him was, I don’t know about the condition of my soul. I seem to have lost touch with it.

Q. Wow. Wow. Now, you talk about the-the tragedy of Payne Stewart’s airplane, and you use that as a metaphor for your own life.
A. Yes.

Q. Remind people of what happened with Payne Stewart in the plane and why that fit your life, and why you think it fits a lot of people’s lives.
A. Well Dick, there were several things about it. First of all, Payne Stewart and several friends had boarded a jet aircraft in Florida near his home, and they were headed to Texas. It wasn’t long after takeoff before the air traffic control folks lost contact and began to try and find out what the problem was. Fighter jets were eventually sent to explore what was going on. It was apparent to the pilots who flew alongside this aircraft that there was indeed something terribly wrong inside. I think the first thing about that image that was significant to me is from the outside, perhaps, say from the ground looking up, there would have been no indication, just a sleek jet streaking through the sky. And I think that’s the way I was for a lot of years, just jetting along, the appearance of things not just good but very good, making great strides, great progress, achieving lots of things. But as was the case with this jet aircraft, on the inside there was indeed something terribly wrong. Of course, before long the jet ran out of fuel and crashed into the ground which is, again, a very powerful metaphor for me of my life. I was literally running on empty and afraid of crashing. That was the state I was in when I sat down and visited with Brennan.

Q. Now, it will surprise some people to learn what you were doing occupationally at the time, simply because you were in a role where you were leading others in the kind of nurturing of their spiritual lives. So talk about what you were doing and-and what was happening as you didn’t nourish your soul, but were trying to nourish the souls of others.
A. Dick, there’s an old expression that perhaps you’ve heard, “You can’t take someone to places you haven’t been.” I think it suggests that to be effective in ministry, to take people to God, you’ve got to be maintaining your own relationship. And I believe there’s a bit of truth in that. But I think it betrays the whole truth. Indeed, I had known God, I’d had some kind of relationship with God, but there had never been a real deep intimacy ever before. There certainly had not been an ongoing sense of connection with God. I prayed, I read the scriptures, I spent time with other believers, but those spiritual disciplines, as we call them, had become for me more a way of maintaining my ministry than my own soul’s ¢€œ

Q. Hm. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
A. ¢€œ relationship with God. When I prayed it was usually ministry-related. When I read the scriptures it was usually looking for something to say.

Q. Yeah, yeah, exactly. And that’s an occupational hazard. A lot of people in public ministry today are in such a fast-paced situation that the idea of nurturing their soul just so they would be healthy takes a back burner to the responsibility to crank out another public presentation this week. Now, would you agree or say that your condition really is probably really the rule rather than the exception in Christian ministry today?
A. Well, I hope that’s not the case, but I suspect it is. Dick, I can remember before this encounter with Brennan and before my life took a turn being so ashamed and so afraid of what might happen if I was discovered. And so naturally I never was looking for an opportunity to speak with anyone about the condition of my soul. But there’s another old expression, “It takes a crook to catch one.” And after I began to enter into this season of recovery, which I’m still in, I began to detect things in my conversation with others that led me to at least wonder, Are they suffering the same malady that I was suffering from?

Q. Wow. Well you know, you have this, you say, “I learned in church, if you keep busy people will seldom question your knowledge or effectiveness.” What is it about busyness in ministry that makes people think that actually something’s happening?
A. Well, the truth of the matter is great things can occur in spite of our own soul’s condition. I remember the late Tom Skinner years ago saying, “Don’t ever judge the condition of my soul by the quality of my preaching.”

Q. So you can preach beyond where you are.
A. I think, indeed, you can.

Q. Yeah. I read a really interesting quote about Henry Nouen just this weekend in which a person said, “You know, when I think of Henry I think of two books. One, is the book he wrote 40 times but could not live, the other is the book that he lived for 60 years but could not write.”
A. Yes.

Q. And that’s the disconnect between what’s often happening in our life and what is happening in a public and successful ministry.
A. Yes.

Q. For people that don’t know, let’s hear a little bit about your story. I mean, how did you become a Christian? How did you get involved in ministry early on? And what were the early signs that this issue of not slowing down and running on empty was going to be an ongoing challenge for you?
A. Yes. Well, I grew up in the south, grew up going to church, grew up hearing about God, learning things, from an early age, and was seriously drawn to faith. And it seemed to work well until adolescence. And I was already at that time quite in touch with the fact that I desperately longed for approval. And so I began detecting very carefully what do I need to do to gain recognition, to gain approval from the group that I happen to be with now? Well, one of those groups that I began to associate with began leading me down another path, and I really fell out of this intimacy that I had known even at an early age. Then there was a significant event that occurred the summer before my senior year in high school that really reawakened me to this longing for intimacy with God, and so my faith journey cranked up again and was-was very significant through college, and after graduating from college joined the Young Life staff. And really for the first few years things were going really well. There was closeness to God, an intimacy was there, but I began to discover that the harder I worked, the more approval, the more recognition I gained. And it was very intoxicating. It wasn’t long before I began to know deep in my heart that-that I was getting myself in trouble. At the same time, it was working so well.

Q. Yeah. Well, for somebody that is listening to this or reading this, what were some of the symptoms that there was a problem underneath the success? What are some of the things that people need to be watching for that would indicate that they’re running on empty even if they’re seeming to have a successful ministry?
A. It was really hard for me then to-to name the longings, express the yearnings. I knew they were there. But as I began to just ponder my life I saw that I was doing things for God rather than with God. Always busy, never able to be still. Constantly working. In my case working for God, but without a sense of God’s nearness. I became aware of the fact that I know a lot of things about God, but it doesn’t feel like a relationship.

Q. You know, you talk about getting a proper view of God as kind of a starting point for turning towards the restoration of your soul. And you tell the story of Danny DeVito in The Big Kahuna where DeVito talks about being in the closet with God and coming out and looking at a world falling apart. And that really is a view of God that a lot of people in ministry, I’m afraid, have. For people that don’t know that story, what is the story and how did it connect to your situation?
A. Well Dick, it was just one of those watershed moments for me. Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey, the two main characters in the movie, have been close friends and work associates for years. It’s late at night, they’re at a sales meeting, they’ve had dinner together. And in a quiet, dimly-lit room they’re sitting together. And Danny DeVito is really trying to bare his soul. It’s apparent that Kevin Spacey is very uncomfortable with the place that it seems Danny DeVito is in, but Danny persists and finally begins to explain this dream that you’ve referred to where he encounters God in a closet. He knows it’s God, he said, because of his large head that looked like a lion. But then he went on to say, I looked at him and I realized that he was afraid. And so I reached out and took him by the hand and I told him, It’s okay, God. You don’t have to be afraid. I’m here with you. I’ll help you. And he went on to explain how he took God by the hand and led him out of the closet. As I watched that scene it touched something so deep within me ¢€œ I didn’t know what it was at first ¢€œ I watched the movie several times over the next few days and I began to realize, this is my view of God. This is the God that I’ve been striving to serve, a God that needs my help, a God who, in a way, had appeared to me desperately needy. A crazy way to think about God and a crazy way to think about myself.

Q. So-so one of the things ¢€œ and folks you can read more about this in Running On Empty ¢€œ is we have to get the proper view of God before we can really start to nurture our soul to understand what it means to know God and to live a life of service with God. You also talked about needing to overcome a life that made you sick. And you talk about Americans all risk kind of “death by meltdown.” And you make reference to C.S. Lewis’s Turkish Delight story. How is it that we’re in a situation that-that is conducive to life that makes us sick?
A. Well, we live in a toxic world, a world that is-is absolutely driven. And I think the damaging effect of living in the kind of society that we’re living in that’s filled with values and-and so much stress on achievement, can really work on our souls. And the truth of the matter is we all want approval. We all want recognition. God has all that we need to offer, but I believe it’s very easy for us to get hooked by what the world is offering in that same vein.

Q. You know, you told me¢â‚¬¦
A. And the thing about busyness for me, Dick, was it kept me from having to face things that I preferred ignoring. It allowed me to not pay attention to some of the deeper issues in my life that were troubling and even haunting.

Q. You tell an interesting story about talking with your father-in-law about whether life has always been this busy, and he said, “Don’t go thinking that busyness and noise and clamor is a new thing. It was around when we were kids.” But then he said, “We knew how to call it quits.”
A. Yeah.

Q. And part of what is going on in American society ¢€œ and you talk about Juliet Schor’s book, The Overworked American ¢€œ is we don’t know how to call it quits. I mean, we somehow think activity ¢€œ and I think about what happens with the typical kid who comes home from a busy day of work and that night they immediately plug into a routine between homework and everything else of playing video games, listening to music, watching television, you know, watching a movie ¢€œ and everything is busyness, everything is electronic and high-pitched. There’s really very little down time until you turn off the lights at night.
A. That’s absolutely true. I’ve actually been doing a little survey with high school friends the last few weeks asking them, What else is going on in your room or your world, wherever you are, when you’re doing your homework? I haven’t yet spoken with a kid who does their homework without something else going on at the same time.

Q. Well, and that takes us into the issue of solitude. And I, myself, just came off of a week-long writing retreat. And-and it’s a lot easier to enjoy the quietness and presence of God when you don’t have, you know, people crowded around and a busy calendar and agenda of activities. But solitude is something that most Americans find uncomfortable. And you tell the story of a retreat where there was going to be a silence imposed on the group and one of the guys said, This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard of. Talk about why solitude is important, what it brings into our life, and why it is so difficult for us to attain in today’s life.
A. Well, I think that there is among most folks a terrible fear of solitude. Kierkegaard said, “If you want to know how society feels about solitude, look at the way they punish.” Solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of punishment, it seems. And so there is a bit of an inate fear in us. And I think some of that has to do with when you come to stillness, when you get alone and quiet, you really are left with yourself. And I believe that in a lot of our lives there are things that we just don’t want to face, things within ourselves. I think also our view of God has a lot to do with it. If God is demanding, if God is someone who’s always bringing to our attention the shameful things we’ve done, then why in the world would we want to be in a quiet place alone with God and with ourselves?

Q. Wow. Which again, now, getting back to spending time alone with God, your prayer life needed to change.
A. Yes.

Q. Talk about what your life of prayer was like prior to, well, when you were running on empty, and what are some of the things that needed to happen in that dynamic of your life?
A. Well, I think most of my prayer, Dick, was just asking God to either put a stamp of approval or come along beside me and help me with my efforts which, if you stop and think about what I’ve just said, a lot of pressure on me asking God to help me, feeling a lot of responsibility for things. Again, so much having to do with work, with service, with achievement, having hardly anything at all to do with relationship, with friendship. And with me, receiving from God the things that only God has to give.

Q. Yeah. I’m going to ask you something because some people are listening to this or reading it and thinking, I agree with what Fil is saying. Our life without solitude and our busy life is keeping us from really experiencing God. But you left your busy life and-and started a new ministry that has given you the opportunity to spend more time in quietness. And at this point I need to ask, How do people who are, you know, in that busy life, is it possible for them to kind of keep in that active ministry and build a healthier life, a contemplative spirituality into daily life as they’re living it? Or do a lot of them have to think about making some radical changes?
A. Well Dick, as you were asking the question I was asking myself another question. Fil, are you going to tell the truth? And the truth of the matter is that although I have made a vocational change, in part for the purpose of having more control of my time, it still can become intensely difficult for me to stop and live the way I really want to live. I think, Dick, the most important thing for me to mention is how vital it is for us to give attention to our desires. I mean, really I believe that ultimately we do a lot of the things that we really desperately want to do. I find a way to read the newspaper just about every day. When my favorite team is playing ball, I just find a way to watch the game. And so I’m not sure there’s anything more important for us to be honest about than what is our desire? How much do we really long for God?

Q. Yeah, exactly. So it’s not just a matter of if I just change jobs and get a slower pace life, I’m going to be more attentive to my soul¢â‚¬¦
A. It’s not that simple.

Q. Yeah, yeah. You have to be attentive where you are, which is what’s so tough about it.
A. Absolutely.

Q. Now, you talk about the importance of a spiritual director in your life. And within evangelical circles this is an idea that’s becoming more popular but still very foreign to some. Talk about what a spiritual director is, and what they do in helping direct you towards the nurturing of your soul.
A. Well, it’s an ancient tradition that’s been in the church for centuries, that evangelical Christians are discovering, waking up to. A spiritual director is really a friend more than anything. And the particular gift this friend offers is-is the gift of a prayerful presence and simply listening. Of course, it’s a bit of an unfortunate title because the only capable and effective spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. But Jesus says this curious thing. He says that when two or three are together in my name, I’ll be there. And the experience that I’ve had countless times, meeting with my director or others coming to meet with me, is that there is this unusual sense of God’s nearness of the presence of Jesus when I sit with another person that is in some ways different than those times when I sit alone or they sit alone. Eugene Peterson years ago said, “A really effective spiritual director is someone who doesn’t know and they don’t really care.” When I first heard that I wasn’t really sure what he meant, but I’ve discovered the meaning that spiritual directors don’t necessarily give you answers because they don’t always have the answer. They sit and-and patiently listen with you sometimes until you, with the Spirit’s help, discover the answer for yourself.

Q. Yeah. You talk about some of your first conversations with a spiritual director and you kept getting frustrated because they weren’t giving you the answers, they kept asking more questions.
A. Right.

Q. And that’s a very interesting thing. Now, one of the things a spiritual director did for you was helped you understand that you had a calling to be a spiritual director.
A. Yeah.

Q. And so when you’re the spiritual director for another person, how often do you meet with them? And what kind of routine do you tend to get into with people when you commit to being a spiritual director?
A. Dick, I typically meet with a directee once a month, which sometimes surprises folks we’re not going to meet more often. And the thing that I particularly try to explain at that point is this is really not so much about our relationship as it is your relationship with God. Really the only things we’re going to discuss when we’re together is your relationship with God, and I want there to be time for you and God to be together, for there to be things for you to talk about. Quite frankly, my concern is that if I met with a person perhaps once a week, there might be more looking to me and less looking toward God for the direction that, again, I believe only God has to give.

Q. Yeah.
A. We meet for an hour. The time is always theirs. I don’t have an agenda. I’ve had discipling relationships before where there’s things I’m trying to teach and I know where we’re going. But in this relationship it’s for them to bring their relationship to God to the time, that’s what we talk about.

Q. Hm. One of the things you talk about in developing your soul, is finding the purposes of sorrow in your life and understanding how sorrow is part of life and how it, in fact, enriches our soul. How did you come to learn those kinds of lessons?
A. With tremendous difficulty. I tell my friends, I have a severe allergic reaction to sorrow, to disappointment, to pain. I don’t like to hurt. And I guess most folks would say the same. And so I’ve spent most of my life avoiding sorrow. But I began to notice in the lives of people around me, folks that I deeply respect and admire, a richness, an intimacy with God that I longed for. And almost in every case I would discover this is a person who has become very acquainted with sorrow. This is a person who has known disappointment and pain. And it’s been living into and through that difficulty that has brought them the intimacy that I ultimately long for. And so I began to experiment and try to embrace some of life’s difficulties and disappointments. And I discovered that I was right. It is in sorrow that sometimes we experience most profoundly the nearness of God.

Q. You end your book by talking about joy.
A. Yes.

Q. In what sense is joy a byproduct of a healthy soul and a growing spiritual life?
A. Well, I think it’s first crucial for a person to understand the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness usually is a result of something that happens. You know, I get a good job, I have a wonderful family, these things happen to me and they make me happy. But joy seems to be more about a choice, and the choice is often made to be joyful even in the most difficult of times. It’s based on a fundamental belief that God is absolutely crazy about me. God’s hopelessly in love with me, loves me so much that he would even allow me to endure sorrow for the purpose, often times, of drawing nearer to him and experiencing this intimacy that ultimately my heart longs for most.

Q. Hm. How do you pastor someone who’s running on empty? I mean, our churches are full of people who are running on empty.
A. Yes.

Q. What advice do you have for pastors that are trying to deal with this in their own life and want to take it seriously in the lives of the people in their congregation?
A. Well again, Dick, I think desire is everything. And I think we have to come to a point, whether we’re the member of a church or the pastor of a church, we have to come to a point where we say, Enough is enough. I have got to begin to pay attention to first things, to those things that matter most. And there’s always going to be a price that you have to pay.

Q. Fil, before we say goodbye, real quickly, what is your website for people that want to spend more time there?
A. Yes. www.journeyresources.org, one word, journey resources.

Okay. Our guest has been Fil Anderson. The book is Running On Empty, it’s published by WaterBrook with a foreword by Brennan Manning, and available at your local bookstores. Subtitled, Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers. We’ll be right back.

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