NB: A version of the following was delivered as a scriptural reflection during a prayer service at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary on July 16, 2015.
I remember, as a child, asking God in my prayers before bed one night for a sign. And then I remember staying up all through that night, afraid of what that sign might be.
It probably wasn’t much later than that when I really began a process of discernment, as I considered for much of my childhood and adolescence a call to the priesthood. There was always this sense that it was just an established reality that I was going to become a priest—no one forced the idea on me, although my two devout grandmothers, one Roman Catholic and one Anglican, had very strong opinions on how I should respond to the call.
And then I remember distinctly thinking when I left the religious order that I was a part of that by getting on a plane and heading home to Wisconsin I was saying no.
No, once and for all, to the call to the priesthood, to active ministry, perhaps even to the church all together.
But, here’s the thing. It’s never that easy and God simply doesn’t work like that. The Holy Spirit, as we heard in this morning’s readings is much more persistent, demanding even. And, in the end, I’ve come to find out, the journey of discernment is just that, a journey, not simply a yes or no question.
A number of years ago a friend of mine, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, gave a sermon on the Feast of Pentecost, making note of a sermon she had heard recently from a Southern preacher. In the south, she noted, Pentecost often comes right at the beginning of hurricane season. To the faithful along the Gulf Coast and up and down the Atlantic, wind has a very different significance than it might to those of us who grew up in the Midwest.
Wind, in such a climate, is not a positive source of life, but one that often causes death, destruction and pain. The slightest breeze in July or August can bring shivers for anyone that has ever been evacuated or lost a home.
The wind of the Spirit, the role the Spirit plays in our lives and the questions we are asked in the process of discernment aren’t always positive. It’s often the big questions in life that cause us to stop and consider how the Spirit is working. Those questions aren’t always questions or situations we want to face.
The Spirit calls on us to consider the best way to act, to respond, to whatever the wind is pushing us towards. We are called to discern how to handle the care of an ailing parent or grandparent, perhaps even to pray about the end of life and the decisions that come with it.
Indeed, it seems that the Spirit works in us even when we might not even believe that God is with us anymore. The wind of that Spirit pushes us to reach out for help when we are struggling, after a relationship ends or our friends graduate and head off to their respective hometowns. That wind blows even when we put up as many defenses as we can, no matter how far we dig our heels into the sand.
Even when we think we’ve said no, the Spirit demands that we continue to discern and engage.
However the Spirit doesn’t always act as a mighty and destructive wind. At times, that same Spirit acts as a breath, offering us new life and energy, often at times when we need it most. Here we are reminded of the presence of God, even in the most simple and mundane ways. In the way we breathe, or how we make someone’s day with a smile or a note or surprise a friend.
The Spirit doesn’t just show up as a mighty wind, asking us to discern the biggest of decisions in our life, like whether to enter the novitiate or fly home, how to best pick up the pieces when someone dies, or even what to do when we win the Powerball jackpot.
The Spirit and our call to discernment from that Spirit shows up in varied ways—as both a mighty wind and as a life-giving breath—throughout our lives, even when we aren’t paying attention.
And, as we are reminded in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the call to discernment is not only an individual spiritual endeavor. Indeed, for us as Christians it must happen in the midst of a community, where we are not individuals at all, but the same spirit.
There are many parallels between the church in Corinth and our church today in its many forms. The need for, and pleas toward, unity that Paul expresses to the deeply divided community he seeks to minister to can easily be adapted to our own lives, our own parishes and dioceses and the church throughout the world.
And the winds are blowing. Just visit Facebook or Twitter and search a few of the current hash tags.
We are called to consider, as the church in Corinth considered, how to welcome those who are different than us into our midst, even and especially when they are sitting right in the pew next to us.
We are called by the Spirit to discern how to move past charity and towards justice, to find ways to bring about compassion in a world that is so deprived of it.
We are blown around by the wind of a Spirit that asks us to talk to one another, to leave our ideological corners and be reminded of what makes us Christians in the first place. That Spirit tussles us until we are able to finally let go of our deeply held convictions that divide rather than unite, that harm more than care for our neighbors, colleagues and friends.
Just as we will likely not survive a hurricane standing alone in the middle of a coastal boardwalk as the eye of the storm makes landfall, we cannot thrive as a community divided as we are today.
This is the great challenge of our generation—the same challenge that confronted Paul and the earliest of Christians. How do we not only survive the storm but also breathe new life into our shared community? How do we take what we learn here in this place—not only in the classroom, but in the foyer of this building, in the Abbey church and while eating pie at Kay’s—and bring more people toward the Christ that unites and away from the ideology that divides us?
How do we answer the call to be shepherds that not only watch our flocks from a comfortable distance, but that jump into the muck and walk with those sheep?
And how do we honor the diversity of gifts that we all bring to this specific time and place? Whether we are speaking in tongues or interpreting others who do, working miracles, uttering wisdom, bringing healing to the sick, or waxing prophetic on street corners – it all stems from the same community, the same Spirit and the same God who makes it all happen.
Today we aren’t asked to answer yes or no, but to consider what’s next, together. And, together, we can stop being afraid of what that sign from God might be in the middle of the night.