Exploring Discernment Practices: Inviting God's Wisdom
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It has been a week. To imply anything else is to dismiss the very real ways we are interdependent, the ways that fear affects our lives, and the ways our country still needs to grow in order to be able to protect our most vulnerable, both physically and financially.
Here at United Parish, while we’ve been working on developing our precautionary response to coronavirus, we’ve also been remarking on the opportunity to deepen community connections beyond the four walls of the sanctuary. We are all spokes in this community wheel, and even without access to the hub, we are held together by the rim.
The oxymoron of ‘social distancing’ not only highlights the role that interpersonal connection plays in the life of a healthy community and individual, but also forces us (or gives us the opportunity to) get creative and more determined in how we stay in spiritual connection despite physical distance or isolation.
Last week, Jaz preached about discerning our spiritual gifts, and living into both the Mary and the Martha within us, being mindful of what tasks lay before us, planning and prepping and putting in the work, and taking time to stop and focus on what matters most in the moment- connection with God.
Part of our community response to crisis involves discerning what is best for the safety and well-being of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our wider community. And with a deluge of information from the news, social media, and our personal networks- some of it contradictory, some of it alarmist, and some of it not-alarmist enough, it can feel nearly impossible to get a handle on where God is in all of this mess and fear.
And that’s where discernment comes in. It’s not just about trying to make a decision, but about finding a way through the static to listen to where and how God is speaking to us, and hearing what God’s wisdom is.
God’s wisdom moves in and around and through us; God’s wisdom is in the every day, the painful, the silly, the mundane, the sacred, the hectic, and the restful. We only need to tap into it, to open our hearts to it and our minds to it.
Like the travelers on the road to Damascus who did not recognize Jesus until he broke bread with them, discernment practices help us recognize God’s wisdom when we hear it, to invite it into our hearts, and to lean not solely on our own understanding.
Discernment as a process can take many forms- they are all underpinned by the acknowledged need for God’s wisdom. Discernment is a process in which we invite the wisdom of God to be a partner in the conversation, whether she is filtered or channeled through a dream, a vision, a voice, a community member, or even our own intuition or subconsciousness.
The Bible offers many examples of practices of discernment. We see Jesus retreating into prayer before he calls his disciples. Prayer in its many forms is a very common discernment practice. Prayer is how we talk to God, and how God talks back to us. We can pray out loud, in writing, while walking, or singing. Prayer is our direct line of communication to God, our speed-dial.
And as in any form of communication, it’s mutual- we need to listen in prayer as much as we speak in prayer. To hold space for God’s response to us, to be willing to hear it, whatever it is, and to trust in it. In our scripture reading this morning, Samuel repeatedly hears someone calling his name in the night, and assumes it to be his teacher, Eli.
After some time, Eli, with many many more years of practice under his belt, realizes that the voice Samuel is hearing is God’s, and instructs Samuel how to listen. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”, Samuel says the next time he hears God calling- and thus begins Samuel’s life as a prophet.
Another example of a biblical discernment practice is when
We see Moses fasting atop Mount Sinai while he listens to God and transcribes the Ten Commandments. Fasting, or giving up some of our earthly pleasures, is a common Lenten practice, and a practice that can aid in our discernment. We do not necessarily need to fast from food; I think its more a matter of figuring out what aspects of our lives contribute to the static that can drown out God’s voice in our hearts, and paring those parts of our lives down to the bare minimum for a time, until we can more clearly listen to God.
I’m going to use another dog training metaphor because that is my entire life outside of work right now- when you teach a dog a new skill, you cut out all possible distractions to really set the dog up for success. This generally means teaching the new skill inside your house, when it’s just you and the dog. Then you gradually ‘fade in’ the distractions, like teaching outside, or in the presence of other people, or other dogs, or in the presence of food, you get the picture.
In fact, that sounds a bit like what Jesus did in this morning’s Gospel reading - he withdrew from the crowds and found a quiet place to pray- he set himself up for successfully talking to God. Fasting, be it from social media, the news, shopping, etc., helps cut out the distractions that can make it harder for us to learn the skill of listening to God’s voice.
We can also discern God’s wisdom as it’s channeled through our community. The book of Proverbs reminds us that “where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety”. We are created in community and live in community- we are the body of Christ and each one of us has a role to support the body as a whole, as well as each individual member.
When we seek the counsel of our community, we set the whole body in motion, drawing on the strengths and gifts of each one, to help lift us up to our fullest potential.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “ For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” When we discern God’s wisdom through the counsel of others, we enter into their labor, and reap what they have sown.
In time, we too will sow those seeds of wisdom for others to reap, and our own labor will be shared as we counsel others.
Next week, we’ll learn about the Quaker practice of a clearness committee, and explore further what that discernment practice can look like in our lives.
Interestingly, I believe the Bible also gives us an example of an unhealthy discernment practice- in fact, I’m not sure I’d call it a discernment practice at all. Fast-forward a few weeks in the liturgy, to when Jesus is put on trial before Pontius Pilate.
Pilate abdicates his responsibility for making the decision whether or not to execute Jesus, and defers to mob rule, asking the crowd to decide who he should pardon, and who should die. I think this is an important counterpoint of discernment.
When we practice discernment, we enter into conversation with God- but by giving up our side of that conversation, we reject our god-given gift of agency, we hide our divine spark under a bushel, and we close our ears and hearts to how God may be speaking to us. It’s the discernment version of the cold shoulder, or ‘talk to the hand’.
Sometimes, we have already heard God’s voice in our hearts, and we are too scared of what it is calling us to do, and so we ignore it. Or we keep trying out different discernment methods, hoping for a different result. Or we say to ourselves, “That can’t be what God is saying to me,” or “it’s just my own ego talking, my own dreams, my own agenda” or “well, that’s just her opinion, and his opinion, and his opinion…they don’t really know me.”
It’s a challenge-how do we know that the voice we’re hearing is God’s? I offer this reflection from Saint Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which
he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands,
with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
If the voice you’re hearing in your heart is moving you to compassion, calling you to do good, empowering you to bless and celebrate, lighting a fire within you to pursue justice, sustaining you to embody peace, I think you can safely assume that you’re listening to God. You need only then respond, “Speak Lord, for I am listening”.
Will you join me in prayer, offered first many years ago, by Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Discernment: Finding Clarity in the Chaos
Week 3: Discerning through Scripture, Saints, and Prayer
These are some questions and ideas for you to reflect further on today’s worship and to join us in our collective Lenten study of Discernment.
In today’s Gospel story (Luke 6:12-16), we heard about Jesus withdrawing in prayer before he calls his disciples.
What do you think he might have prayed about?
What were some questions he might have been considering?
Have you ever prayed over an upcoming choice? What were the results?
How might you benefit to pray regularly over decisions for which you are responsible?
We also heard about different discernment practices in worship.
What practices have you used in your life? What practices intrigue you?
If you find yourself typically drawn to solo discernment practices, what would it be like to take on a practice that involves others? Or vice-versa?
What role does God have in your discernment?
Some suggested practices for the week ahead
These are some easy-to-try spiritual practices that can help you as you launch into a season of discernment. By no means do you need to try all at once. We invite you to try them out as you see fit, see how they feel and then report back to us next week. You are welcome to join us in study groups after Sunday worship in Lent or other times. Check out the homepage link at the bottom of the page.
Lectio Divina: a practice to try this week
Lectio Divina (literally divine reading) is a way of becoming immersed in the Scriptures very personally. It draws on the way Jews read the Haggadah, a text read during Passover that retells the Exodus story. Haggadah means “telling” and along with being a physical text, the word captures the practice of telling and retelling a story to find deeper meaning.
The Christian form of Lectio Divina was first introduced by St. Gregory of Nyssa (c 330- 395), and also encouraged by St. Benedict of Nursia (c 480-547), the founder of the Benedictine order. It’s a way of developing a closer relationship with God by reflecting prayerfully on God’s word in scripture. In Lectio Divina, the chosen spiritual text is read four times in total, giving an opportunity to think deeply about it and respond thoughtfully. When we practice Lectio Divina, we sometimes can imagine we’re actually involved in the events of Scripture.
Here’s how to get started:
Light a candle and/or pray a prayer of invitation, saying something like, “God, let me/us hear from you,” and spend a few minutes sitting quietly so one’s mind is open to hearing from God.
The first reading is an opportunity to get to know the Scripture passage. Listen carefully for any words or phrases that seem to jump out. Write down or share those words if you are doing this with someone. No need for lots of explanation, just share what caught your attention.
On the second reading of the same passage, listen for the deeper meaning God has infused in this scripture particularly for you in your life today. How does it make you feel? If there’s no immediate response, ask God to be more present with you.
After a third reading, what action could you take based on this message from God, that would keep up the conversation with God and deepen your connections to the Spirit.
After the final reading, spend around 5 minutes in silent contemplation. This doesn’t need to be a time of prayer or deep though — just sit quietly and allow God to work. When the mind starts to wander and dart here and there, bring it gently back to stillness again.
Another practice is to name and write down three specific things each day for which you are thankful. It could be anything: time with a loved one, a delicious meal, an unexpected break in your day, a kind exchange with a stranger, something in nature.
The point is to make it specific, and spend some time in your mind reliving the experience, savoring the feelings and thoughts they brought up in you.
This is a core practice that neuroscientists suggest in helping change some of our brain patterns from our predetermined negative, anxious bias to a cultivated, more positive, hopeful outlook.
We welcome EVERYONE at United Parish to try having a prayer partner in Lent.
You may think that you are not that spiritual, or that you don’t know how to pray, or even if you do, you don’t want to share that with someone else, that it’s private. That’s OK. Just give it a try.
It’s a holy experiment, basically committing to having a spiritual buddy in the congregation with whom you talk for 5-15 minutes each week from now through Easter (April 12).
You can sign up at unitedparishbrookline.org/prayer-partners-during-lent
An online “data-driven” daily discernment practice
Methodist colleagues at the Harvard-Epworth Church in Cambridge have created a daily discernment opportunity, in which they email you a question each day to answer as part of your own private discernment practice. You can check it out and sign up at 40form.org/signup
Scripture for your week ahead
Ponder this verse from the Epistles (James 1:5) If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
Take a few minutes to read and reread it during the week, paying attention to how it lands with you at different times and in different situations. Are you able to trust God to provide wisdom when you ask for it? How is God calling you to listen and be receptive to divine wisdom?
Throughout your week, you may also want to re-read the verses from Psalm 40, that we chanted in worship today.
For more information, check out unitedparishbrookline.org/news/opportunities-during-lent.