Our prayer topic this week, in the season of Lent, is Discernment. Its one of those really churchy words, like “narthex” or “fellowship.” Last week we focused on mindfulness. Next week we will focus on interfaith prayer and relationship. Lent presents an opportunity to reset and get on God’s timeline. We have the chance to re-pattern with God. The word Lent comes from an Old English word for lengthening, meaning the days are gradually lengthening into spring time. The Liturgical Calendar gives us an alternative way to move through time, an antidote to the pace our lives in the world.
So why discernment? During our Small Group Visioning process in the fall of 2016 we asked each other sacred questions week after week, questions that were meant to get to the core of why we gather as a church. When we got to the question, “What is God’s vision for us to become?” many of us stuttered and stammered, saying, “How can we possibly know what God is saying?!” Great question. If God is “Still Speaking,” as the UCC says, shouldn’t we find fresh ways to listen?
Here are some definitions of discernment: it implies a searching mind that goes beyond what is obvious or superficial. It means a power to see what is not evident to the average mind. Discernment is the ability to think with God. Jesus often says, “those who have ears to hear.” We need practice to attune our ears to the gentle voice of God. Discernment is a way of detecting the movement of God and a way of listening for the voice of God.
But how can we tell the voice of God from the many different voices and the noise we hear? There is so much competing noise in the world, sometimes so many different voices in our own heads, talking to us, encouraging self doubt, sabotage, destruction. Some mental illnesses allow for voices in our heads to become audible.
This week, our dear member and congregant Ron took his own life. After battling with severe depression, and the trials of being an older gay man, having not been accepted much if his life and still in certain places, Ron told me after his first suicide attempt last week, that he just could not quiet the voices, and that he simply wanted to be at peace with God. He couldn’t wait to be welcomed home by the angels he told me.
When he told me this, I basically cut him off and said next time I see him better be in the pews, because God isn’t done with him yet, that he has a lot of life and love in him. He paused and said, “I do have so much love in me.” But to him that love belonged to God.
I told him that we have a church that loves and embraces him in his fullness- his sexuality is no big deal, part of how God created him, even if the world is mean and harsh, we are open and affirming, and that meant so much to him. But I know didn’t believe that he would come to church again. I told him that I would believe it for him. He started telling me that he wanted to leave me his paintings of cats, but I refused to hear it. I said, I will only accept them from you in person. I wonder if I was missing out on a precious voice of God because I was so desperate to convince him to keep living.
Today I asked Wally, Ron’s partner, to bring some of Ron’s painting in today, so we could put it on the altar, and remember Ron’s spirit. Ron in his black french beret, very stylish clothes, saying spiritual phrases in different languages, or quoting scripture- passionate, loving, with a twinkle in his eye.
I am angry that sometimes the voice of God does not prevail, sometimes we can’t possibly hear the voice of God, because of the other competing voices in our lives, or in our heads are louder. Voices that lie and say we are worthless. With all the noise in the world, how do we know which voice is God and which is self-doubt?
Jesus talks about being born from above, as a way of knowing God, or being able to see the kingdom of God. Some Christians talk about this experience as being born again, which is a beautiful metaphor for having new life in God. But it is not a one time event- we do not get saved then wipe our hands of searching and listening and questioning. We need to constantly detect the life-affirming spirit of God, that renews us, when our own will cannot.
Jesus talks about being born from above, that the act of birth is something God gives again, by the spirit. God’s voice is life-affirming. We can distinguish the voice of God from the other voices if it affirms life. God’s spirit renews when our own will and flesh and life-force wane. The voice of God is the voice affirming life around us and calling us to become more alive.
Nicodemus, a lead Pharasee from our scripture today, should be able to hear the voice of God. It is part of his job description- but instead with all his status and honor and social clout, he is sneaking off at night to listen to a poor Galilean peasant named Jesus. And Jesus speaks to him about being born again, or born from above. To be born again, as would mean changing Nicodemus’ whole social status of honor in a very radical way and he may not have been ready to let go of the honorable way the world saw him, so he had to sneak around at night. Part of discernment is being able to know our true identity with God, through Jesus. Not the way the world sees us, whether the world tells us we are honorable or worthless.
Wendy Wright, author and Roman Catholic theologian, writes:
“… discernment is not simply about resisting what is evil, self-absorbed, or destructive. It is about foundational identity. It is about who we know ourselves ultimately to be. It is about paying attention to the ways in which the limited power we wield, the modest respect we command, the taken-for-granted resources we hold provide us with our primary sense of meaning. To what extent do we “know” ourselves first as civic and church leaders, or as respectable citizens or conscientious parents or homeowners or degree holders or job holders and not at all as beloved daughters and sons of God? We are beloved not because of what we do. We are beloved because we are.”
In other words, discernment is about knowing that we belong to God. That we have come from God and we will return to God. Discernment is about our identity. And followers of Jesus are born of the spirit. Being born of the spirit makes other identity markers less important. There is a radical equalizing force with the spirit. When we are born of the spirit, we remember our true identity in God. Discernment is less then, about hearing particular voices among the many, but more about returning to the expansive stillness of God within and beyond.
Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals writes, “There’s a great story, that to me, illustrates why this kind of rebirth is so important. Some of you may have heard this story before. It involves a little girl who was an only child until she was about three years old. When her mother told her that she was going to have a little baby sister, she was very excited, and when her parents came from the hospital for the first time, the little girl made a request. She wanted to be alone with her baby sister in her room, with the door closed. At first the parents were hesitant about granting the request, but then they remembered the video monitor that they had installed in the baby’s room. They would be able to see and hear everything that transpired between the two sisters. And so they allowed the older sister to go in, shut the door, and turned on the monitor to listen and watch. They saw the older sister approach the crib, and then, they heard their three year old daughter, say to her three day old baby sister, “Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.”
“This is what happens. We are born of God. We are born from above. But we forget.” Writes Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals. “We are born with an innate connection to our creator—the very source of Love— but over time, that connection becomes frayed, and we are separated from that Love by our own worries and desires, by anger, resentment, and fear, by our addictions and our unhealthy obsessions, and by voices competing for our attention, telling us that we need more, and need to be more and need to achieve more. The older we get, the harder it is for us to remember who we really are and to whom we really belong. And so we need to be born again. We need to be born again in order to recover our true selves and our true purpose. We need to be die to our false selves, which are centered in this world, and be born again back into our true selves which are centered in the Spirit, in Christ, and in the very source of Love. That’s who we were when we came into this world, we just tend to forget that.”
As the wind whipped around yesterday I heard this scripture passage from the Gospel of John chapter 3 in new ways, ‘”Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Although he took his life far too soon, at the age of 69, Ron knew that he was born of the spirit- he knew that he belonged to God.
It looks like with this Noreaster coming our way on Tuesday we will have lots of indoor time with wind and snow whirling around. This can be a real opportunity for listening for the voice of God. For reflection on being born of spirit. A snow day may mean lots of people home at once, who would usually be at school or at work, but it always means being with ourselves and others a little longer than we bargained for. This is a great opportunity for listen for the voice of God and watch for the movement of God.
When we are born from above we have more energy to bring healing and justice to the world. Being born from above, being born of the spirit, allows us to pay attention to the movement of God in the world, and how we can participate in that movement, how we can use our unique gifts for the work of bringing the realm of God, of love and justice and peace, to this earthly realm. Being born of the spirit is central to doing good-works in the world. It begins with a spiritual knowing and reality—if you don’t have this, your flame will burn our quickly. Let’s try to remember together- that we are born of the spirit. There is always so much tragedy and death and pain in the world, and there is so much healing and justice work to be done. Locating ourselves as within God, and being born of the spirit, helps us discern how to move and act in the face of death-dealing forces.
Psalm 121 speaks of God caring for the totality of our being and encourages an utter reliance on God from us. When we lift up our eyes, to the hills, and wonder “from where will my help come?” My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. The Lord will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. Let it be so, amen.