Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, what we used to call Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday on the church calendar. Next week is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, which anticipates the celebration of the birth of Jesus. So the church year is structured to begin with waiting for Jesus, and to end with Jesus as the one we follow. A way from earlier days to express this was to say that Jesus is our King, our Lord. We may not relate to that language, but it is still true we would do well to follow the ways of Jesus, in how we live.
But how do we do that? If Jesus were an earthly king, and we were his loyal subjects, and these were medieval times, following might be easier. We could just do what we are told, by decree, or by royal command. I wonder if we actually would follow orders, if that was the way it worked.
But Jesus is not that kind of king, and following the ways of Jesus, being a faithful person, is not that simple. We have free will, and we exercise that freedom every day with many smaller and bigger decisions, that add up to the general direction of our lives.
Wouldn’t it be great to know we were on track, that we were making good decisions?
I have taken extra training, beyond the basics needed to be a pastor, in order to serve as a spiritual director. Part of what I do with people who meet with me for spiritual direction is try to help them pay attention to how God is already at work in their lives. A wonderful side effect of this work is that it reminds me to do the same about my own life. When I do this, it always leaves me feeling more at peace, more trusting that the universe is a good place to live, more sure that there are reasons to have hope.
Sometimes people meet with me when they are sorting through a major decision in their lives. They often have a pretty good idea of what they should do, are seeking clarity, or confirmation. They are trying to discern that they are on the right path.
I have been doing further study on the spiritual practice of discernment, so I can get better at it in my own life, and so that I can help the people who meet with me for spiritual direction. It seems to me that in our life together as a congregation, it is important that we learn more about how to listen for God, as we discern the way forward.
I have been reading 2 books by a woman named Elizabeth Liebert, who is quite helpful on this subject. She wrote that:
“The Latin root of the verb “to discern” means to discriminate…. in the Christian spiritual tradition, discernment refers to the process of sifting out what is of God, discriminating between that which expresses God’s call and anything that runs counter to it.
Whenever we seek to answer such questions as “How is God present here?” or “How can I know what God is calling me to do?” or “Is this just me, or is this really God?” or “Is God calling us to go forward with our plan?” we are engaging in discernment.
Discernment… is the process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness.”
Last Sunday we acted out the story of God calling to the little boy Samuel, who lived in the temple with Eli. The voice kept waking up Samuel, and Samuel kept waking up Eli, who finally said to him, if it is God calling you, say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
I believe that God is calling to us all the time, in soft and quiet voices we do not always even notice, in the busy rush of our lives. Many times a day we are offered the choice between a good path to follow, and a path that may not be right for us, and others.
Jesus, in the Gospel lesson we heard today, promised God would be present with us as a comforter, as a guide, to help us find our way.
One of my favourite shows, that used to be on CBC radio, was called the Dead Dog Comedy hour. It was set in a coffee shop on First Nations land in Alberta. The show had a slogan, a motto that the characters said at the end of every episode. Do you remember this?
“Keep Calm, Be Brave, Wait for the Signs.”
That’s pretty good advice, even if came from a comedy show.
The author I have been reading, Elizabeth Liebert lays out a process for doing spiritual discernment. I am distilling her work down into something less than the 350 or so pages of her two books. I know that in doing this I lose much of the depth and nuance of what she teaches.
This process works best when a person is trying to decide between two options or choices. Each may have pluses or minuses to them, but each are possible, and each have good in them.
Seek spiritual freedom, the inner disposition upon which discernment rests and which creates the climate for discernment. “Indifference” which means knowing that whatever the outcome, we are still held in God’s love.
This spiritual freedom becomes not only a place of calm to begin from, but also a factor in any choice we finally discern, because it changes who we are- we are people who trust in God, and see the work of God in the world as one of the factors we include in our discerning.
If we can’t imagine any other world than we presently inhabit, we will not desire more. To move toward deeper desires, then, we must school our imagination, learn to imagine that which is not yet.
- Discover and name the issue or choice you face. What is really at stake is not always self-evident. Carefully framing the issue not only helps to clarify the matter for discernment, but it also actually begins the process of sifting and discriminating that is at the heart of discernment. Framing the question into something you can actually work with is very freeing. A lot or parents of grade 12 high school students are having conversations lately about what their child is “going to do with the rest of their lives”. Putting it that way is crazy making. It may be helpful to narrow the question to something like, “further study, or a break from school”, or “college or university”.
- Gather and evaluate appropriate data about the issue. Discernment is not magic. We have to do our homework.-gather information, talk to people who know things we don’t. Because we are trying to discern what might be possible in a world that includes the reality that God is at work, our sources of information are wider. We can learn from our memories of other times we have needed God’s help. We can pay attention to what our intuition may be telling us- when we make surprising connections, have interesting dreams, get a hunch or a feeling. We don’t need to leap on these, but can add them to the information we collect. We can pay attention to what our body says. If talking about a particular option makes us energized, or really tired, what does that mean. If talking about something leaves us feeling ill, what does that mean? If talking about something fills us with joy and excitement, what is our unconscious, and our body telling us?We can also gather input from our imagination, from our logic and reason, from our religious traditions and stories.
- Reflect and pray. Actually we have been praying from the outset. We pray for spiritual freedom. We select and frame the issue for discernment in prayer. We prayerfully select and consider the relevant data. But as we begin the process of discrimination in a more focused way, it is important to renew our attention to prayer.
- Formulate a tentative decision. Many different methods can help us come to a decision, and therefore aid our discernment.
- Seek confirmation. In this step, we bring the work we have done, including the decision that is emerging, back to prayer, asking God to confirm it. That is, we await the inner sense that we are on the right track. We look for the presence of indicators, the touchstones or norms that the tradition suggests are signs of the Holy Spirit’s work. We bring our tentative decision to the community of faith, checking our sense with others who know us well. In confirmation, we “discern the discernment.” We “test the leadings.”
- Assess the process. Revise as needed. Still discernment does not end. We look back over and examine the entire process. Was there anywhere that we acted without spiritual freedom? Any place where peace deserted us? Any part filled with anxiety? We let some time pass and look to see what kind of fruit has appeared in our lives and the lives of others as a result.
But if something went awry, we can become alert to how that happened and therefore more attentive to preventing it in the future. Nothing need be lost.
It is also okay to discern further, and revise our conclusion, to adapt. God is with us in all of it. Amen