Discernment is the practice of distinguishing the voice of God from among the many different voices that vie for our attention, such as the expectations of others, cultural pressures, or even our own inner critic. The root word for “discern” means to “cut away.” So, discernment is the art of sorting through all these voices and our own tangled motivations and cutting away all but those that are of God.
John the Baptist was a master of discernment. When asked “who are you? What do you say about yourself?“ he responds with great clarity and authenticity about who he was and who he was not. He knew was not the light, but his role was to give testimony to the light. He was not the Messiah, but through his ministry of baptism he felt called to help prepare for Christ’s arrival. For John, the act of baptism was not only to wash and cleanse those who came to him of their sins, but also to help open their eyes to the revelation that Jesus was on his way, just over the horizon; the one whose sandal straps John was not worthy to untie. His ministry of baptism was an act of hope, witness and preparation; helping to make straight or clear the path for God’s action and presence in our world.
We too, if we are to live with authenticity, must discern carefully and answer the question “Who am I?” Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber recently wrote a heart-felt essay about the urgent need for prayerful discernment at this particular moment in our collective lives. She says that with all that is coming at us these days – the on-going global pandemic, the political division among us, distance and strife within our families, wildfires and other effects of climate change, all the war, hunger, racism, and other suffering around the world – we are tempted to throw our hands up in the air in despair and give up on our efforts to make a difference.
Instead, she recommends spending time with three guiding questions:
- What’s MINE to do, and what is NOT mine to do?
- What’s MINE to say and what is NOT mine to say?
- What’s MINE to care about and what is NOT mine to care about?
Not that all these issues aren’t worthy of attention and care, but we, as individuals are not designed to meet every need that is brought to our awareness.
A little story..
“A lighthouse keeper who worked on a rocky stretch of coastline received oil once a month to keep his light burning bright. Not being far from the village, he had frequent guests. One night a woman needed oil to keep her family warm. Another night a father needed oil for his lamp. Then another needed oil to lubricate a wheel. All the requests seemed legitimate, so the lighthouse keeper tried to meet them all. Toward the end of the month, however, he ran out of oil and his lighthouse went dark, causing several ships to crash on the coastline.” (Max Lucado)
How does this story land with us?
Does it comfort or confuse us?
It always reminds me of the perplexing parable that Jesus told about the 10 bridesmaids. It makes me wonder what the oil represents. Maybe the oil respresents the good “fuel” that comes from exercise, practicing the piano, or quiet time spent in contemplation – something we simply can’t give or do for someone else.
It makes we ponder – how are we called to let our light shine? And can we make someone else’s light shine?
Maybe its a parable about good discernment, being aware of our calling….of what we need to do, and not do…say and not say…what is ours to care for and what is not ours to care for…at least not at this time.
Perhaps its designed to underscore the importance of the kind of humility that John practiced, in knowing who he was and who he was not. Telling us that when we know, deep within, that our truest identity is found in our belovedness and belonging to God, then all our false notions of self – those that are inflated or deflated – fall away.
Maybe this story helps us realize that alone, as individuals, we are not the Messiah, but that the oil represents our specific, and perhaps humble, but nonetheless, essential contribution to the Body of Christ to which we belong.
Though, like John the Baptist, we are part of the great divine oneness, in service to a much larger mission of love and transformation, it’s really hard to feel like a collective right now. We feel very much alone in the wilderness.
Many days I feel like an ember that has been flung out of the fire and is losing its light and heat because I’m so far from the steady fire and fuel that community provides. I worry about my kids and their diminished experience of the warmth and safety that the togetherness of family, community, church provides during their most formative years.
But when I pray about all that has happened in the last few years, what brings me hope are Jesus’ many stories of seeds and the image of the mature dandelion. The strong winds of change and uncertainty have spread all our little dandelion seeds a drift. We’re kind of in this liminal, sometimes uncomfortable space, not where we’re going and not where we’ve been. BUT there is a lot of life being carried; the life, light and love of God is in each and everyone of those seeds and is also in the current of the wind – taking all our little seeds of life to where they are needed most.
May we take hope in the idea that sometimes the darkness doesn’t mean we are buried but that we have been planted.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ