The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Discerning and responding to God’s call
The last few weeks we’ve hearing quite a bit about God calling people. Jesus baptized and called into his mission; Jonah; Jesus’ new disciples; Samuel, called in the night. And another call in the night, for Martin Luther King to persevere when things were the darkest. Call is clearly a major theme of this season of Epiphany.
But what is this business of “call,” anyway? Because it is not like most of us hear God’s voice come completely out of the blue: Brian, you are now to become an astronaut! Mary, go to Cairo tomorrow, and open a shoe repair shop!
More likely, God’s call is a lengthy process, which asks of us patience and discernment. It often begins with dissatisfaction, an itch. A job just doesn’t feel right, or we know that we’re not living in a way that is healthy or centered in God. We have to experience this dissatisfaction for awhile, getting to the root of it: what is the problem here? What needs to change?
Then begins a time of praying, listening, waiting for the Spirit to call us forward. What is it we need? A new approach to prayer, a change of vocation, a shift in our relationship with our spouse? What feels compelling, attractive, perhaps scary, but right? We have to rely on our intuition, and dare to imagine.
In time, we may have a gut feeling, an intuition about how the Spirit may be leading us. Then, if we are brave, we respond to the call; we get up and go where we are led. God gives us a vision of possibilities, but then it is up to us to get up and walk into the unknown. This takes faith, trust, that God will give us the means to do what God calls us to do.
Through all of this, we cannot go it alone. We need friends, family, fellow pilgrims on the journey. Some form of community is essential, if we are ever to get to clarity. We need people to discern with us, to whom we can express our dissatisfaction, our dreams, our fear of change. Others give us a reality check; they tell us things we hadn’t thought of; they mirror back to us what they hear and see in us.
This is essentially what many of you did last year in the ReImagine process, through the Season of Listening and the group meetings. You shared your passions and dreams, and what your “Yes” to the Spirit might be. You did that in community. Out of that, some of you offered new ministries to this community.
I don’t know if you’re aware of our parish Discernment Guild. They have served as this discerning community for some dozen of our members over the last few years. As needed, they form a small group around a person who is seeking God’s direction in their life. Over a period of months they listen deeply, and pray together. Discernment for some has to do with the possibility of ordination. For others, it has to do with other big transitions and new directions. In February, our Discernment Guild will lead the Sunday adult education hour, helping us all deepen our skills in personal discernment.
Everything I have described so far has been about discerning God’s call as individuals. We ask “How is God moving in my life, and how can I contribute more authentically to this faith community, to the world around me? What is my ‘Yes’ to the Spirit?” There’s nothing wrong with discerning about one’s individual life - in fact, we need to do more of it.
But there is another way in which community plays into discerning God’s call. It is when we listen together for a corporate sense of the Spirit’s leading for all of us. What would God have us do as a nation, as the Episcopal Church, as a parish, or as a family? This kind of corporate discernment involves listening, wondering, sometimes arguing, and waiting patiently together.
We’re not so good at this. Perhaps this is because it is more difficult to do it with others than alone. You bring other people, and their sense of the Spirit, their agendas they may be bringing into the mix - not that you or I have any agendas, mind you, only those others - and, well, we’ve got some sorting out to do. But that’s no reason not to do it.
We’ve got a golden opportunity to practice this, coming up this year. Next week at Annual Meeting, you’ll be hearing about how we’re taking a new team approach to ministry. We have a clergy team that is planning and coordinating ministry together. They, in turn, are forming teams of lay leaders in the broad areas of ministry they look after. These teams will listen to the Spirit, in order to discern the directions in ministry we, as a parish, are called to take together.
Another opportunity to do corporate discernment may be about to sprout, at least I hope it will. Last Sunday, one of our Vestry members planted a seed. We were in the midst of strategizing how to get through our budget shortfall, as we have been for two months now. He found himself a little itchy, a little dissatisfied.
So he gently but firmly pointed out the danger of becoming, in our worry, too inwardly-focused, too self-absorbed. He brought to mind how so many of God’s people in that big world out there have a lot of urgent needs. Despite whatever restrictions we feel, we have enormous resources, and we are able to do far more than we are currently doing to serve the most vulnerable of God’s children. We will continue this conversation with the new Vestry, especially on our retreat in March, and I hope that his itch will spread like a virus to others.
What our Vestry member brought up has an old-fashioned word that is being reclaimed by a new generation of young Christians today: mission. Mission is not just some evangelical outpost in a jungle somewhere, or a week of house-building in Mexico. Mission is when we, as a church, commit ourselves to join in God’s work of healing this broken world. Mission is not only charity; it is working to re-shape society so that it is more aligned with God’s intention for it. Mission is when we intentionally live out the commitment we make every time we say “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Young adults in the Emerging Church movement are, in fact, are talking about being a mission-driven Church. Think about that for a minute. What would it look like if all our decisions - about staff, budgets, buildings, education, ordination, worship, everything - were driven by and subject to the highest priority of mission, of healing this world and building God’s kingdom here on earth? What would the church have to be doing to be publicly known primarily for this?
So this year, we are entering a season of listening together how the Spirit might be leadings us into new ministries that benefit one another, and mission that benefits the world around us.
None of this is easy. To listen for God’s call, whether for our individual life or for our parish, we must be very patient and discerning, and open to the support and questions of others. Then to respond to God’s call, we must act courageously, without having any guarantee about the outcome, or even knowing how it will be worked out along the way.
We’re never done with this process, for we are a verb, not a noun. If we are alive, we are always in a process of becoming more. Even today, God is trying to get our attention, to invite us to be bigger, freer, more loving and of greater service to God’s world.