We Keep Seeking
I have been listening to a book by Stanford faculty Bill Burnett and Dave Evans entitled Designing Your Life, Building the Perfect Career Step by Step. While their wisdom was initially packaged as a course they teach for young adults who are transitioning from college to career, the book contains a lot of little gems about how we might be intentional about discerning and testing a path toward joy and fulfillment in our lives.
In particular, their description of discernment is sticking with me. I use that word a lot – as a leader I am called to discern the Spirit’s leading for the church. But I hadn’t really thought much about how I would explain discernment to others.
Essentially, they describe discernment as decision-making that employs more than one way of knowing. Perhaps it includes a gut sense of things, an intuition, or an emotional or a spiritual nudge. Discernment takes into account emotional intelligence and not just our rational minds.
Even as I wrote these words, I imagine some folks in my life who are super uncomfortable with relying on something beyond their rational, data-informed minds. I think for many, it is a special challenge to listen to our guts or our hearts, and to learn to trust our guts, our hearts, our intuition, our Spidey sense – whatever you call it.
As we sat at a table discussing this at home this week, Matt noted how hard it is to pause long enough to test your gut or feel your heart or engage less rational inputs during a time of crisis – a family tragedy, a job change, a global pandemic.
I thought, yes, I can see that. And yet, I also had something of a gut reaction to what he said… (see what I did there?)
Sometimes when we are in crisis, it is the non-rational inputs that bubble up and they might be ALL we can grasp or see or feel. At least, I’ve had that experience.
And in my head and heart in that conversation with Matt, I drew a connection to faith (as defined as the conviction of things unseen in the letter to the Hebrews) and my personal ongoing connection to the Holy Spirit’s nudge.
How are we attuned to the signs and wonders and nudges around us as we journey in life? Are we attuned to God who is with us day-by-day on the journey?
In today’s scripture, we have the magi navigating geography and politics and human nature to discern their way to an unknown location for a purpose that must have seemed sort of fuzzy at the time – a child/toddler king that they found in a humble village in Roman occupied territory.
And the familiar story told in Matthew’s gospel has Herod receiving information from the magi visitors and feeling deeply threatened by their news of a new king born in his region. He sends the magi ahead, asking them to return with details about what they find.
And the magi learn in a dream that they should not return to Herod, but depart taking another route.
When Herod discovers he’s been duped, he decrees that all very young boys should be killed. That decree sends Joseph and Mary into a crisis, and Joseph receives word once again from an angel – he is to leave his homeland and flee to Egypt seeking refuge for his family until danger has passed.
Like so much of the detail of the story that begins the first week of Advent, the actions and responses of the magi and the holy family are driven by attention to the signs and wonders all around – the voices of angels, the signs in the night sky, holy nudges.
Do we do much of that anymore? Are we attuned to the signs and wonders? Do we cultivate decision-making and navigation that employs more than one way of knowing? Are we sensing holy nudges? Angels in our midst?
Since early in 2019, I have been a student of the Living School, a program of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. The program was founded by Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk. The program is rooted deeply in Christian mysticism, the tradition of folks like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avilla, Julian of Norwich – but also modern mystics like Thomas Merton, Wendell Barry, and Mirabai Starr.
At the center of the work of the Living School is prayer. Not words on a page or a specific set of prayerful actions, but prayer that involves sitting in the presence of God. For me spefically, that means intentionally putting myself in the presence of God the creator, Jesus who is God with us, and the Holy Spirit.
Let me tell you something – learning to quiet my mind and my body to be in God’s presence is SUPER difficult. Maybe you are already skilled at meditation or centering prayer, but for me, sitting in stillness and silence for 5 – 30 minutes is a WORKOUT.
And some days I do it well. And other days not so much. And some days I feel deep connection to God – a peace that passes understanding if you will. And other days not so much. My prayer practice is just that, practice. It is called a practice for a reason – if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again as my mother would intone.
The rhythm of our calendar year and the rhythm of the church year combine with some magic alchemy around New Years Day – and this year we have the perfect collision of marking Epiphany with the beginning of a new year. Often as we turn to a new year, we do so with reflection on what has been and perhaps with some intention to take on some new things in the year to come.
What if this year we turned our attention to the work of prayer that puts us in God’s presence? And perhaps in that work of prayer we may find deep listening, deep knowing, new kinds of discernment.
What if we committed to actively seeking God in the year to come – like the magi, watching for signs and wonders and guidance? And what if that guidance shaped our work of being a place for people to belong in community, become followers of Jesus Christ, and believe the good news of the Gospel?
What if discernment, what if seeking was a regular part of how we live together in this community?
I wonder, how might you practice that in the year to come?
I wonder, how might we practice that in the year to come?
I have one tool or prompt for us today.
Since 2020, we at Faith have marked Epiphany with star words.
Star words are simply words, normal every day words, that we sit with intentionally in the year to come. We pray with that word. We watch for that word. We expect something through that word.
Last year, we talked about star words as a gift – a gift that chooses us rather than a gift that we choose. We don’t pick a star word – we receive a word. Star words give us a focal point, a challenge to sit with a word not of our choosing while we seek for how that word has meaning in our lives in this season.
And with practice, our word may reveal things to us. We may know new things via our word.
When we intentionally tune into other ways of knowing, through our gut, our heart, those holy nudges, we begin to discern. And if we have tuned into God, our discernment is shaped by God.
As you come to receive communion this morning, as you come seeking to be part of God’s big table, God’s big story, you can take a star word for this year. And I’d love to hear about your star word – about your first reactions and about how it shows up for you throughout the year.
If you are joining us online, there is an easy way to get your very own star word. You can go to the website wordoftheyear.me (can we get that on a slide?) and have a word randomly generated just for you. OR you can email the office and I will personally mail you a star word, randomly chosen!
Let these words guide us in the year to come.
Let them guide our willingness to know in new ways.
Let them guide our practice of placing ourselves before God to receive.
Let them remind us to seek.
Let them be part of our becoming.
May it be so.