Two years ago this month, I was laid off for the second time in four months. It was quite the cliché -- an hour's notice, a cardboard box for my belongings, everything. It was rough.
my favorite Baltimore speakeasy, poring over my pro/cons lists and praying. I'm not saying I ultimately made up my mind on a coin flip... but I may have used a quarter to confirm the decision the next morning. I can't tell you how nice it would have been to have a dove come down from Heaven and land on the right employer's business card!
I share this story because all of today's Scripture verses are in one way or another related to epiphanies like the dove in today's Gospel, and to discerning God's calls to us as the church and to us as individuals. I'm currently exploring my own likely "call" to the Episcopal priesthood, which includes an official and formal process of discernment, so this is a topic I've given some thought to over the past few years.
All of us are called to something. Maybe it's the ordained priesthood; maybe it's the military; maybe it's volunteer work with children or animals, running a business the community needs, or raising amazing human beings. How do we make these decisions? How do we know WHAT God is calling us to do?
I'd like to walk through today's Scripture, and then come back to that question: What is the best way to move through discernment?
We start with Isaiah -- "The Lord called me before I was BORN." We are THAT known to God and THAT special, we are literally called from our BIRTHS! The prophet goes on to say, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant just to raise up the local tribes; I will give you as a light to the nations." What a charge that is! You're not just called. No, you are so special, no matter what good or bad you've already done or losses you've had, there is still a massive mission waiting for you. And NO ONE is excluded from this -- it says salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth. God's call and love is for everyone.
We see this again in First Corinthians, when Paul uses the word "call" twice, this time to describe all of us as the church: We are called to be saints... in every way enriched by Christ, in speech and knowledge of every kind, called into His fellowship. And Paul isn't writing this to just anyone -- the church in Corinth was a very troubled church, broken into factions and known for its immorality. But God was ready to lay them blameless just the same, and will do the same for us. We can never sink so far that we are beyond the reach of God's call.
Turning to the Gospel, Peter and the two other disciples here instantly knew what their call was: Here at last is the Messiah; give up everything and follow him around. And John the Baptist even saw the Spirit descending like a dove onto Jesus. Such epiphanies they all had!
Small wonder this reading is chosen for the season of Epiphany. Merriam-Webster defines that word, "epiphany," as "a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way." Is that how we're supposed to discern God's call? By experiencing epiphanies like John and Peter?
Just this morning on the way to church, I was listening to NPR's "On Being" with Krista Tippet, and I heard her say, "Spiritual life at its best is reality-based." Well, that kind of sudden clarity does happen sometimes, and when it does, we should listen to it and trust it -- but it doesn't happen very often. It sure didn't happen at my Baltimore speakeasy! (Though to be fair, it was called the Owl Bar, not the Dove Bar.)
That's just not how God usually communicates with us, is it? Epiphanies rarely come in one big expected boom. That's why I like the Eastern Orthodox Church's original approach to the season. Epiphany wasn't just about the three wisemen, but also Christ's birth, His Baptism, John's preachings, and the first miracles, all wrapped up into one celebration. Taken together, only then does the epiphany of Jesus' identity -- of the good news that God is among us -- begin to emerge.
In our daily lives, whether at church, at work, or at home, that, I think, is often the best way to discern our calls. Not through singular epiphanies, but through a process, with patience, reflection, and LOTS of listening.
As I mentioned, I am currently going through the formal process of discerning a call to ordination. The first step in this lengthy process, a step I completed a few months ago with help from some amazing (and VERY patient) fellow parishioners here at Christ Church, is to set up a "discernment committee" at one's parish. This group, maybe half a dozen or so people, meets for at least six months. For the first half of the process, we focus on the group, sharing our stories, discussing what "call" and "discernment" mean, learning about ordination, etc. For the second half our focus turns to the individual in question, and it gets pretty self-reflective: Who are your spiritual influences? What are your strengths? What are you bad at, what are your growing edges? How do you pray? "Tell me about your mother, how does that make you feel," it could seem like I was on a therapist's couch! But in all seriousness, from all that we get to the question, what direction for the individual does this community hear emerging?
In response to this process, there are those who say, even if God has a will for us, we can't ever truly know or discern what it is -- it is arrogant to presume to think we can know the mind of God.
I don't disagree! But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask the questions and embark on a journey to at least try as best we can. As long as we keep an open mind and, as our presiding bishop says, hold our truths lightly, we're doing just fine. So I like our church's formal discernment process. It's patient. It's intentional. It's loving, but not always easy. And it is NOT done alone.
That last part is key. We cannot know ourselves or God without community. Our brothers and sisters are also God's children, and God's image is reflected in them. And our friends often see things in us -- or in our surroundings -- that we can't see in ourselves, or just aren't equipped to see in the world around us.
So I believe these are the steps to discerning God's will for us and God's call in our lives:
- Learn and know your gifts.
- Trust God, but also trust -- and this is the hardest part for me personally -- also trust God's timing, not my own impatience.
- Return to Scripture, but read it in a modern setting with a reflective eye: Don't just ask what it says, but ask why it says that, and what does that mean not just for a life not in 14 AD, but in 2014 AD?
- Do all of this in community.
- And when epiphanies do come, trust them -- but also pay attention to the little things.
This may not be satisfying. Our troubles and questions confront us now, so we want the solutions and answers now, not after a long period of reflection. Worse yet, we won't even always arrive at conclusions or erase our unrest this way. But even just by embarking on the journey, we still draw closer to God, which was the real point all along.
One final note about the little things. I once took part in a New Hampshire men's Bible study about one of the Epistles. I, being a stupid freshman, shrugged my shoulders on the first day, and said, this intro, this is just a little thing, we don't need to pay attention to it! Can't we please skip forward to the meat, to the parts where Paul talks about theology and grace?
My friend Evan gently corrected me. Paul was writing by hand, so to write a greeting that long truly showed his heart for the readers, and set the tone for all that followed. The little things are never little things.
Indeed, Paul has a lot to chastise the Corinthians for, and over the course of the letter, he really lets them have it. But that was not the place to start. Even these immoral, brawling factions "are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints." Even for them, Paul gave "thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus." Hi! How are ya! Good mornin'!
WOW. When was the last time someone greeted you that way, or you greeted someone that way? I think I told someone "Yo" this morning. Not sure that counts.
In Paul's greeting, we find an epiphany as true as the fact that God is among us now, and that is that God does call us. No matter what the Corinthians had done -- and no matter what we have done or lost -- we don't have to be who we used to be. We are loved, embraced, and accepted. We are important enough that the call to be and do more never goes away. Dove or no dove, we just have to listen -- and, like Simon becoming Peter, be willing to change.