Sunday, May 09, 2010

Discerning the Spirit

How the heck do we discern the Voice of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

I have always envied those early apostles – the ones whose letters we read in the New Testament. So often they talk about “being led by the Spirit” to do this or that. There are even phrases in the Gospels where it says, “Jesus, being led by the Spirit,” did this or that. How the heck did they know it was the Holy Spirit “leading” or “telling” or giving them an idea to do those things? Does the Holy Spirit leave unique postmarks or embedded metadata on the Spirit’s messages? How did Jesus and the apostles distinguish between “being led by the Spirit” and “having a hunch” or “having a yen” or just going off on a wild hare? How did they know what was a nudge from the Spirit and what was just an egomaniacal lark? (Of course, I especially wonder this about some of Paul’s exploits … but I digress.) Credit: Image above courtesy of this site.

1970s Reflection

More than three decades ago, in the summer after college graduation, I was in a time of great emotional distress. I had a full ride to a graduate program. But a dear friend of mine had been most brutally murdered, and I was in emotional chaos. I was a wreck. One evening, as I prayed in a church service, it seemed like God … the Spirit … was telling me to give it all up. I clearly heard the phrase “crucifixion of the intellect.” I had been so proud of and enriched by the intellectual world I had discovered in four marvelous years of a very heady, intellectual Catholic liberal arts education. But I heard that voice telling me to ditch the graduate studies and “go on the road for Jesus.” That “voice” was so antithetical to my own wishes that I thought it could only be from God, because it certainly wasn’t what I wanted to do! And so I did it.

I spent a year with an evangelical revival team. I ditched all my plans, and pitched my proverbial tent with a family I had come to know and deeply love ... and whom I still treasure, though I am no longer in contact with them.

It was terrifying at the time. To give up graduate school. To abandon the intellectual life. To give up my dreams. But, in hindsight, I’ve never regretted that decision. I can see that year gave me experiences and revealed gifts I might not have discovered had I gone directly onto the path I had charted.

I grew in a lot of ways in that year. I traveled to places I would not have seen otherwise. I learned to meet and connect with strangers in ways I had not done before. It moved me beyond my egg-headed existence – not that I abandoned or eschewed the intellectual life; but it put me in situations where I had to deal with many people in very different situations than my own and learn to connect with them.

And the people with/for whom I worked were a godsend to me. They helped me to heal. I will always be grateful to them and grateful for that time. I had a rich year of ministry and experience. I am profoundly grateful. They loved and accepted me. ... Even though I'm not sure they would appreciate what/who I am now, I am profoundly grateful for them and for that year I spent with them.

I remember that night in 1974 as if it were yesterday. I heard “God,” the “Spirit,” a voice greater than my own telling me to give up all my plans and aspirations. I believed that voice because it was so different than my own voice, so counter to my own ego.

After about a year on that path, I eventually heard another “call” – that this had been good, but it was time to go back to that path that was distinctly my own – on to graduate school. And I did so, enriched by that detour that I still believe was the Spirit’s nudging.


I can write all that now, with some 35 years of hindsight. At the time, moment by moment, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was desperate and confused. I didn’t know what voice I was hearing. I just thought any voice that could break into my single-minded academic focus – any voice that could be so contrary to my own plans and aspirations – must sure be Another Voice, not my own. I believed it was the voice of the Holy Spirit.

I do know it worked out well. I am profoundly grateful for that year between college and graduate school. But was it the Spirit’s voice? Or was it my own desire to crucify the intellect? Was it the Spirit giving me an opportunity to grow in different ways? I don’t know. I just know that it eventually worked for my good.

So how do we know? How do we know whether we are “being led by the Spirit” to do this or that? Or does God – whoever God is – just help us find a good path, no matter our decisions? Does God make good of our well-intentioned decisions, no matter what they are? I don't know.

More Recently

On a much smaller scale, I had a similar moment of decision in the last few days.

I wonder: If one hates “difficult conversations” and recoils viscerally from outright confrontations … then how does one discern whether the failure to have either one constitutes a failure of nerve – just being a chicken – or a careful listening to the Spirit?

Credit: Chicken image at right courtesy of this site.

I’m sorry this post will have to be fairly vague. But there are folks in my diocese who read my blog, and I don’t want to be specific.

In the last couple of months, I’ve been in a rather difficult situation vis-à-vis a diocesan group. I’ve spent quite a bit of time and spiritual/ecclesial angst about whether to withdraw from that group. I had decided to do so. I had come to feel very unwelcome in that group. I had decided that – while I believe in its mission – it was consuming too much of my energy in some increasingly negative ways. I had decided it would be best to focus my energies here in my parish.

As luck would have it, I had a recent lunch date with one of the folks involved in that diocesan group – in fact, with the person from whom I had felt most resistance and belittling. I had intended to state my decision to withdraw.

Instead, we simply had a very pleasant conversation about our parishes, our towns, the Christian formation our different parishes are doing. It was an utterly delightful, relaxed conversation. I had a marvelous time.

And I never got around to saying, “I’m quitting that diocesan group.” It didn’t feel right to do so. What felt right was connecting personally with this other member of that group.

After weeks of working myself up to a resignation, during that lunch conversation I came to question my resignation intentions. I remembered some of the things I value about that diocesan group. New questions occurred to me about whether maybe the problem is simply one of different modes – the different ways people approach a common goal.

I had talked with my rector and a couple of wise friends about my intention to resign from this group. Both agreed it was time. And some offered that it would free me to discern where I could focus more of my energies and ministry here in my parish and community.

But during that lunch, a sense came over me that resigning now would be wrong. Maybe it was just the wrong setting? Or maybe it was the wrong decision? I don’t know.

Spirit Calling?

I know that many of us Christians do what we want to do, and then we justify it by saying “the Lord led me to it” or “the Spirit prompted me.” Too often, I think that is a cop-out.

I wonder: How the heck do you know if it was really “the Lord” or “the Spirit” … or whether it’s your own aversion to conflict … or maybe your own ego?

I think it’s somewhere in the Pauline epistles that there’s a line about “discerning the spirits.”

I wonder: How do you discern the spirits/Spirit?? I mean it!! How do you know what inclination is coming from ego, what’s coming from fright, what’s coming from aversion, and what’s coming from the Spirit?

I have three cats. As I wake in the morning, when I hear one of them speak to me, I know whose voice it is. It’s easy for me.

But discerning the voice of God? That’s not so easy for me.

How do you discern the voice of God/Spirit from one of your own interior voices?

P.S. Some of you who read this know exactly what I am talking about. But please do not get more specific than I have here about the particular group. Please talk about discernment of spirits, not about this diocesan group.


Blogger JCF said...

Brief (probably cop-out!) response:

Do you know Thomas Merton's Prayer/Meditation, "The Road Ahead"? [You can Google it]

Pray/Meditate on it . . . then understand it's OK to make mistakes---even about the Voice of God.

When I hear other Christians bash our GC ("you let it define God's Will!"), I say no, we let our General Convention discern God's Will at this moment. If they get it wrong---which they're SURE to, on some things, at some time!---that's why we meet AGAIN in 3 years.

The process of discernment NEVER ENDS. You're NEVER "stuck", having discerned incorrectly (well, at least, you're not stuck as far as God's concerned! Human beings, on the other hand? Eh.)

It's all about Trust . . . and then you make your "Leap of Faith"...

...till the Next Time.

God bless you in your discernment, Lisa: gratefully accept all prayers in mine!

5/10/2010 2:13 AM  
Blogger MadPriest said...

I'm not normally a blog whore. But we've known each other a long time (in blog years) so I'm assuming you will take this in the manner it was intended (e.g. to be helpful).

Check out my latest sermon for a few thoughts on the discernment of the Spirit.

5/10/2010 7:29 AM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Have you ever read the book "Listening Hearts," the book our diocese uses for vocational discernment? It's really an injustice to think that book is "just" for discernment towards ordination.

But the main thing it talks about is our inner voices require validation from others at times. In that spirit, I'm glad to listen via e-mail or phone about any of them you want to run past me. Not to advise, but in the "What I hear you saying is..." mode.

Also think back to what you had told me about that baptism at your church a while back and your experiences there. You got a glimpse of something I have to confess I take for granted sometimes...that there is a joy in the things you find that are really from God, even if they are not "easy things." Joy is not always connected to "happy." Sometimes the joy is "this is the right thing to do, because my being in it makes IT better. Just not always me, every minute of it. When I do feel good, though, it's a really deep kind of 'good'."

5/10/2010 8:11 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, JCF.
Nope. I don't kthink I know of Merton's prayer that you mentioned.
Yes! I think you're right -- that our GC discerns year by year, as best they can.
I hope you are correct -- that I am never stuck.

I have a sense that I must "get it right," or else. I hope you are right.

5/10/2010 10:01 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Jonathan, I would never call you a blog whore. I am pleased to give more visibility to your blog!

And I will hie myself to your sermon shortly.

As I have said often, you are about the best preacher I've ever heard!

5/10/2010 10:04 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yes, KirkE, I not only have heard of "Listening Hearts," but I have a copy here at hand ... having chaired a discernment committee in my parish. I appreciate your reminder to return to it for what it says about discernment. As you said, discernment shouldn't be only about holy orders.

I frequently hear my parishioners telling me I should pursue holy orders. But I think they have it wrong. I am a junkie for liturgy. I am happiest when I am serving around the altar. To me, liturgy is better than any drug. But ... the real, day-to-day work of a priest? Nope! Don't want to do that! As you and I have discussed, I just want to be around the altar and the Holy Stuff. That's all. ... I don't want all that other complicated stuff that priests must address.

5/10/2010 10:11 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

There are all sorts of places "lovers of holy stuff" could end up. Do you have artistic talent? Maybe you could DESIGN the holy stuff. Is there a book that needs to be written about the holy stuff? Is Grace big enough to need a verger? You know you have a funeral ministry of sorts, as crucifer. Lay Eucharistic Minister might be another? I could see you enjoying handing out the already consecrated Sacraments to the homebound and dying. I see many possibilities, actually!

5/10/2010 11:11 PM  
Blogger MarkBrunson said...

What JCF said.

God's Plan is ineffable - which means we can't eff it up.

5/10/2010 11:23 PM  
Blogger BentonQuest said...

One of the thing that I learned through the Lutheran Church is that the Spirit is best discerned through the community of believers. I believe that we cannot be Christians in a vacuum, we need to be in communication with each other.

My own feeling is that as long as we keep looking toward Christ and keep on moving, we will get lead to the right path.

5/11/2010 12:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, KirkE.

Nope, I don't have any artistic gifts. Yes, I am a skilled writer, but I don't see that being called for in my parish.

You asked: Is Grace big enough to need a verger?

No, we're not. But, as you know, I have served as subdeacon several times at the Cathedral. I would love to serve in that ministry in my wee parish.

You know you have a funeral ministry of sorts, as crucifer.
Indeed I do.

Lay Eucharistic Minister might be another?
I do serve as LEM in our parish.

I could see you enjoying handing out the already consecrated Sacraments to the homebound and dying.
I think you're speaking of Lay Eucharistic Visitors? That's a role I don't see for myself. LEM? You bet! LEV? I don't think so. I have creepy weakness about those who are sick or dying. My own fault and shortcoming.

I see many possibilities, actually!
Thank you, KirkE.

I'm finding some good roles within the parish. My conundrum is about the larger question of how one discerns the movement/direction of the Spirit. That's the great mystery to me.

5/12/2010 8:57 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for that reminder, BentonQuest.

One of the thing that I learned through the Lutheran Church is that the Spirit is best discerned through the community of believers.
I've heard and internalized that, too. It's funny how many people in my parish say I'm called to the priesthood. I'm pretty sure I am not. I'd make a lousy priest.

I believe that we cannot be Christians in a vacuum, we need to be in communication with each other.
That's the problem, BentonQuest. I can't speak freely and honestly about this particular diocesan situation.

My own feeling is that as long as we keep looking toward Christ and keep on moving, we will get lead to the right path.
I hope so, BentonQuest. I'll do as well as I can to keep listening.

5/12/2010 9:01 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

That's comforting and simple, Mark. I would love to think I can't eff it up!

5/12/2010 9:02 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I'm truly grateful to those of you who have replied in this thread. I suppose I'm stuck with stumbling along, hoping that the Spirit will keep me from making any really stupid mistakes. It sounds like that's what the rest of you good folks do.

5/12/2010 9:35 PM  

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