General CBF / peer learning groups

The difficulty of discernment

By Laura Stephens-Reed 

At the transfiguration, a recent lectionary text, Jesus invites Peter, James, and John – his executive committee – on a hike. A team-building exercise. A bit of continuing education.

We don’t know if this committee has been briefed about what they’re going to witness at the peak. And even if they’ve gotten a preview, they are not truly prepared to see Jesus’ face glow like a galactic body and two long-dead heroes of the faith join him for a chat. Peter, whose discipleship flows and ebbs dramatically, things to himself, “I’ve gotta do something, because I can’t believe what is happening in front of me, and I want to preserve this moment.”

So he taps Jesus on the shoulder as he’s still talking with Moses and Elijah, saying “picture this” and lining out a grand plan for building some semi-permanent living spaces right there on the mountain. But while the words are still tumbling out of his mouth, God says, “SHUSH! This is my son speaking. Listen.” And, of course, Peter and his pals are terrified at having been addressed by a voice from a cloud. They fall down and try to make themselves as small a target as possible for whatever wrath is to come, willing themselves to melt into the earth itself.

Bless Peter’s heart. It can be so hard simply to be still and listen to the holy. In my quieter times I want to interrupt with my questions and my thoughts. I want to react immediately to what I am learning, often racing three steps ahead. I want to overlay my hopes and expectations on whatever divine urgings penetrate my mental swirl. I want to hear clearly from and be close to God, but let’s get real, I’m a little afraid to hear too clearly and be too close, because then there is no interpretive wiggle room and nowhere to run.

God knows this. And still, God speaks to us – in any number of ways. Through numbers that we crunch. Through encounters we have with other people. Through gut feelings. Through scripture. Art. Logic. Nature. Imagination. In fact, God never stops trying to talk to us. We just have to hush up enough to listen. So how do we do that when we, like Peter, are eager to be worthy of the title “disciple”? When we, like Peter, don’t like how things seem to be unfolding? When we, like Peter, want so badly to make up for our missteps that we try to force an idea?

Luckily, we’ve been given a process called discernment to help us hear.

There are four major movements to this means of attentiveness. First, we prepare ourselves to receive God’s guidance. That might mean finding a physical space where we can fully focus, or absent that luxury we can use spiritual disciplines to create a grounded space within ourselves. We set aside distractions, naming and offering to God opinions and worries that could keep God’s messages from penetrating our bubble. If we’re looking for insight in a particular area of our lives, we morph that area of uncertainty into a question that we would like to put before God. And then we do the hard part: pray for indifference. Not indifference in the sense of apathy, but a trust in God’s intentions such that we will refrain from elbowing the outcome in one direction or another.

Once we’ve gotten ourselves ready to listen, we enter the second movement in discernment: gathering and mulling as much data as possible. Here’s where we tend to excel, because we have some agency. We turn over every stone for information. No data source is off limits. After we’ve dug up all we can, we consider what we’ve found. We make lists, charts, graphs, word clouds, whatever suits our learning styles. We name what has surprised us, delighted us, challenged us. Then we ask God to weave the data together and to help us see the interwoven whole.

After the investigating and compiling, it’s time to wait during the third movement of the process. We make friends with silence. (Okay, it might be more like making quiet our frenemy.) You know, we are so unaccustomed to silence that when we do experience it, we often feel uncomfortable with it.  So we can start with short spans (30 seconds or so) and build capacity from there. Those pauses give God bigger openings to speak into our quiet, which we need because the response might not be immediate. When we do get a nudge, we begin to plot some actions, still not wedding ourselves to them.

As plans begin to emerge, we’re ready to test them out in the fourth movement of discernment. We consider whether what we are hearing or sensing lines up with our purpose and our perception of scripture and the person of Jesus, as we understand them. We reflect on whether they bring us a sense of peace. We imagine what the potential long-term impact will be – on us and others – of acting on the invitations. We hold onto the possible answer and actions to see if they stick with us. When we’re ready, we move ahead in ways that honor the Spirit at work in, around, and through us and those around us.

At times this process of preparation, data collection, waiting on a word, and testing the inclinations that rise to the surface seems draggy, I know. Why can’t we just put some plans on paper and get to work? That is Peter’s inclination. He is mentally drafting a blueprint of dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: “Okay, so we need a sleeping area here, a cozy nook for coming up with the teachings to guide humankind here, and of course a pantry and a micro-fridge so that these great minds have some brain food.” The problem is that that is very human thinking. It’s the quick reaction. The restless body. The desire to be useful more than faithful. The projection of what we’d like to see. The projection of what we’d like to be. All of this is what God says, “Hush!” to. Just be. Trust. Don’t abandon the gift that is the listening itself.

We are all gonna be like Peter sometimes, getting ahead of ourselves because we can hardly see beyond ourselves. God knows that. Jesus understands that.

Moses and Elijah having been spirited away by Peter’s interruption and God’s admonition, Jesus walks over to his humbled and cowering friends, who don’t at the moment look like the people to meld a growing band of followers into a church. He touches their shoulders, their backs, gently and extends a hand to help them up. He tells them they don’t have to be afraid. He accompanies Peter, James, and John back down the mountain and confirms what they witnessed up at the peak, even as he tells them to hold that experience close to the robe for now. Jesus does the same for us. He stays near to us and in communication with us, even when we get ahead of ourselves and try to get ahead of God. He offers to take away our fear. He gives us a nugget to go on, even when we don’t understand it or we can’t really explain it to anyone else. He does all this for us – that is, if we’ll let him. That really is the key – the letting. And it’s hard because it involves giving up control.

But this is Lent, a season when we open ourselves more fully to all the images, messages, dreams that God hopes to share with us. What would it take for you to slow down, wait, and then delight in what God reveals? What would it take to know deep in your bones that you don’t have to try so hard, that you just have to pay attention and respond? We are loved as we are. We are equipped for the goodness into which God invites us. We are forgiven when we screw up. And if we relax our shoulders, close our eyes, and breathe deeply, we might be shocked at the glory of the Lord we see in front of us.

Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.

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