Discernment is a process of determining what is the Truth.
The word “discern” is used frequently in determining a spiritual truth. In my work as a spiritual director, I often hear people talk about discerning “what is God’s will for my life”. Some people are methodical about such a process, with carefully timed analysis. And others seem more intuitive, waltzing through their days, with an eye out for signs that might lead them to their answer. Regardless of the tack one takes, discernment carries a weight, a mystery to its meaning.
To explore this concept of discernment, I want to tell you a story.
Once upon a time was a boy who felt called to serve God and his fellow humans. In the land of South of God, that translated into “finding your call”.
This young man had “tried on” a number of vocations. He considered medicine, caring for the sick, a noble cause. He thought about the law, pursuing justice, especially for the downtrodden. He wondered about public service, in a role of leadership which might be able to change systemically the life of the community. But there was this nagging, gnawing sense of something else…a call to ministry.
He tried it out in his own brand of religion, because that was familiar. But the structure seemed too tight for his wondering about God and Spirit. He finally came upon a religion that seemed to fit his sense of wonder and intuition of grace. And so, he decided that he would become a professional religious person in this group. They called those persons “priests” in that neck of the woods. Where he was from, South of God, they called religious folks gone pro, “preacher” or minister. Or in the back woods of the South of God tribe, “brother”….enough reason to get your doctorate!
In the group he was wanting to be a part of, they had a “process” for anyone who wanted to become a “priest”, that is certified, justified, legitimated, ordained, approved of, okayed….a process known as discernment. The formal title, as conjured up by the formerly certified, justified, legitimated, ordained, approved of, okayed, by this process, was called the Vocational Testing Program, or VTP.
This process was ingenious, designed by a brilliant lay person who had thought about it quite a lot. It would go for nine months…..I am certain you see the organic correlation. It would have four quarters of focus. In each quarter, you would have specific experiences that you would reflect upon and share it with two supervisors (one clergy, one lay) and your peer group (other folks who, like you, thought that God might be calling them to “go pro”). Hijinks will surely ensue.
The first quarter would be highly structured, placing you in a hospital where you were designated as a “chaplain”. They even gave you a badge, an ID, that would show that you were “authorized”. This quarter was to test your reaction to authority and structure. Did you rebel, resist, comply, lay down? You would put in a set number of hours a week, visiting the sick, talking to them of their experience of being in the hospital, listen in a Rogerian style of mirroring what you are hearing…”what I hear you saying is…”., and offer them the comfort of your presence. The sincere hope was that you wouldn’t muck it up, by being obnoxious. uncaring, or evangelizing….which turned out, in some cases, to be a false assumption.
While the first quarter was structured, the second was just the opposite. NO structure was provided. You were to create your own experience of the urban reality, testing your creativity. Were you able to be self-starting, curious, risk-taking, creative? The setting of Atlanta provided a rich target for exploration, visiting strip joints, gay bars, and drag queen shows. Funny how for this group, “urban” meant sex. I, coming clean as to the identity of the aforementioned, “young lad”, actually visited all of the above, including the Sweet Gum Head, where I met Ru Paul. More about this quarter later.
The third quarter was more traditional where you were asked to be in a church other than your own home parish, serving at the altar in worship. Mostly it meant, putting on the ceremonial garb that clergy wear during worship, and functioning in a variety of ways. For most, it meant administering communion, namely providing the chalice with the blessed wine to the pursed lips of patiently waiting parishioners. Delivering this wine to another human being is no natural act. It is somewhat similar to the docking procedure of a spacecraft in orbit. Houston, we have a problem. The whole point was to let you see how it feels to be up front in a church, responsible for being a symbol-bearing person. What would such an experience surface from the depths of your psyche? Would it feel “natural”…..or way too natural?
Finally, the fourth quarter, was a “clean up” time. The supervisors would have decided which of the group were “approved” to go on to seminary and hopefully, ordination, and which members were going back to their home parishes, hopefully with a clarification as to how they would live out their ministry as a lay person…..not a “pro”. I find it harsh to say “amateur”. Clearly there was a lot of caring needed for those whose call was not verified by the group and our supervisors. Lots of tears, and for some, relief, a bullet dodged. You could exit the process, claiming to anyone who cared, “At least I gave it a shot.”
I went through the process, again, an ingenious one that was a test of a variety of skills, personality traits, and foibles. It turned out that I was recommended to “turn pro”, although I already had as a South of God type. It just required rubbing up on the ivy for a while to remove the “reformed” residue. It was a good process for me, allowing me to look deeply at the Self I had formed, as well as make some wonderful friendships.
What I want to talk about is what I missed. And it was a hell of a miss. Consequential.
In the aforementioned second quarter, the “urban” quarter, I dove deep into my favorite pool, creativity. I not only did the expected, gay bars, etc… but I contracted to do a ride-along with an Atlanta cop. I went to neighborhood meetings, just to listen to the sounds of the city. I attended a PTA meeting in an urban school. I loved the fact that I was free, free, to be creative and design my own program. That was in my sweet spot, freedom. Give me an inch, and I’ll take several fathoms.
One of the things I designed was a night on the town. Literally, I planned to spend a night on the streets of Atlanta, where I would live overnight in the city, like a homeless person. I went on the street with no money, and no ID.
I began my night in midtown, going to a church where they served the homeless a meal. I wound up with a group of folks, I was the only white guy, leaving that shelter, heading up Ponce de Leon. “Blood” was the name of the leader of our group. I think he could sense that I was “fresh” to the street, as he almost “little brothered” me. We wound up at Ray Lee’s Blue Lantern Lounge for a few beers, paid for by someone. One dude from another group tried to pick a fight with me over a tune on the juke box, and Blood intervened to save my young ass.
The night was long. We eventually made it to the woods off of North Avenue, where the Carter Center is now. There, I saw an impromptu cardboard city, made of old Bekins moving boxes. It was so tribal. Terry Holmes would have loved the anthropological moment, pure liminality!
Blood built a fire that we sat around, and told stories. At some point, someone brought out a jug of wine. Carlo Rossi, I think. And another person brought out a bag of peanut butter sandwiches which they had gotten that morning at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church from the daily soup kitchen. There, people passed the torn sandwiches, and passed the jug of ripple while the fire crackled. Folk religion in the midnight moonlight.
Can you imagine my excitement at writing this all up for my VTP group? They wanted me to have an “urban experience” and, by God, I designed one. I was pumped, psyched, thrilled….add any other word connoting excitement. And so I submitted my report of my night on the street, with no small degree of pride. I had created a Disneyland ride through homelessness, and Street Life from the jazz group, The Crusaders, was my background music.
The surprise of my life was that I got back a rather terse reply from one of my supervisors who took me down the track for jeopardizing the program by taking such a risk in being on the streets of Atlanta overnight. He and I had a long conversation about the boundaries that were not clearly spelled out but I was clear that my hand held no trump cards in this game. And so I let it go.
I should not have. It should have been a clue to me about the nature of the church as an institution. He was just doing what he needed to do to protect the institution from being embarrassed or sued for my risky behavior if I had been harmed or killed. Makes good sense to me in an institutional mindset. Truth is, I have been in that same position, with similar institutional pressure, but made a different decision.
The point is, my encounter in this discernment process should have hipped me to a basic reality in the church. It is an institution, with legal and financial liabilities that can get in the way of pursuing its mission in full-tilt boogie mode. That has been a frustration for me throughout my career, and a dimension of the church that the ingenious process of discernment clearly identified. I chose to ignore it. And it cost me.
I now coach clergy, many who are experienced and seasoned by years in the parish. But my treat is working with clergy who are fresh from seminary, like the work I used to do in the Diocese of Texas. A basic lesson is the reality of polarity, of tensions that must be honored in the work and art of ministry. The most basic tension is that of Spirit and Structure.
Both need to be given their “propers”, their respect. Spirit is the verve, the motivation, the drive that propels a person in one’s life. This passion is the sine qua non in my book. I have only come across a few religious folks who lack passion. It may be passion misguided, or more common, distracted, scattered. But Spirit seems to be a starting point,
Structure is added to channel, to direct the flow so that the energy is not wasted. Rather, structures sets up the pathways, the order to make things happen, to bring results. When both Structure and Spirit are present, good things can happen.
Unfortunately, institutions by their very nature seem to emphasize the structural dimension. It seems there there is an underlying need for control that is based in fear…”can you imagine what might happen?”. Through time, organizations can tend to veer to a preoccupation with structure, sometimes referred to as maintenance. What I experienced with my supervisor was an eruption of this structuring impulse. As I said, it was understandable, justified, but tips the hand of how the Church is wired.
In my daily devotion, I have been reading of Jesus’ last days with his disciples. It is striking that he presented no organizational chart, no franchise schemes, in a word, no structure. His “structure” seemed to turn the leadership pyramid upside-down, where servanthood is the model. And love is the product. You know, the old “last will be first, first will be last” schtick. I think they missed that at Wharton and Harvard.
Jesus left pregnant symbols, the washing of feet, and a common meal which would conjure his Spirit to be present. No plan, no structure. Just Spirit. And predictably, they scattered with no succession plan.
History shows that they got busy quickly, organizing, ordering….in an attempt to balance this mega-dose of Spirit that Jesus left them. And history documents the evolution of this organization through time, from a snapshot of dazed disciples to an organizational chart that squeaks with a stultifying tightness.
The genius lay woman who I mentioned, who designed the Vocational Testing Program, Caroline, made a telling assessment of me at one point. “I see you as a prophet, standing on the boundary calling in to the community, but not so sure about a priest, who is one whose function is to gather the community.” I knew she had read my mail. It’s why I asked her to preach at my ordination as a deacon. She proved to be the real prophet.
Looking back over forty years, a Hebrew idiom for “a long damn time”, I still love the Church, even in its fearful, reluctant plodding form. Every so often, it gets in touch with the founding Spirit of the Christ and stands up. Cooler heads remember what such zeal for Truth costs, as it cost Jesus his very life. Churches seem to prefer the comfort of the golden bejeweled cross that one wears as a fashion accessory over the bloody crucifix of sacrifice. But, every so often, Spirit breaks through in spite of the structure.
Balance is the key. Via media, I’ve heard it said among Anglicans. I remember my night on the streets, with Blood, and the mystic, sweet communion around the fire in the wilderness. It renews me, fires me up. Keeping the balance….that’s the trick.