April 7, 2014

With Discerning Eyes


Text:  1 Samuel 16:7: “..the Lord does not see as mortals see...the Lord looks on the heart.”

Yesterday, Saint John’s went all out.  We laid on quite the celebration, including gifts and a festive meal. We acknowledged God’s continuing blessing on all of our ministries in this place and marked a significant point in our journey together by installing Mark as our Rector. This morning, we have a veritable feast of images in our readings: bread coming down from heaven, a shepherd, green pastures, still waters, the valley of the shadow of death, rod, staff, an overflowing cup, darkness and light, spit and mud. Having considered so many images in less than a day’s time, it is tempting for me to give a brief riff on the theme of abundance, bid you all a happy Mothering Sunday, and go back to the organ bench. However, that is not what I am called to do this morning. There is a thread to be drawn from today’s readings, one that is directly related to what St. John’s has been doing for the past five years and to what our diocese is doing right now—discerning where and how we are called to minister in our particular contexts.

Let’s turn our attention to the story we heard from 1 Samuel this morning, the first account of how David became king. (There are actually three accounts of David’s becoming king in 1 Samuel.) This first story follows a familiar biblical pattern in the exaltation of the lowly: David is the youngest son of Jesse and thought to be of little account; his job was to watch the sheep. The prophet Samuel is sent by God to anoint the new king, as the current king, Saul, has lost God’s favor.  Samuel goes to the house of Jesse. The image that ensues is a literal parade of the sons of Jesse before the prophet Samuel. As each of the first seven sons pass by, Samuel says, “Not this one.”  Finally, they have to fetch the youngest from the fields, and God tells Samuel this IS the one, anoint him. As I think about this scene, I can’t help but see the near absurdity of it. Over and over again, Samuel calls for another son to come into the room, hoping the next one will be THE ONE, so that he can get on with things and return home.  Why didn’t he just arrange a police-style lineup and save some time!

The story relates that Samuel was ready to anoint the first son, Eliab, however God tells Samuel not to look merely on his appearance or his height, but to use a different kind of vision, for “the Lord does not see as mortals see…the Lord looks on the heart.” To see as God sees, at least for the writer or editor of 1 Samuel, is to not get caught up in external appearances, but to look into the heart, to look with discerning eyes.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had a direct experience of God’s voice saying, “No, not that one” when I have been faced with choices in life.  I’ve had inklings from time to time, insights that prod me toward particular paths or choices, and I imagine you may have had such experiences, as well. I’m intrigued by the prospect of learning to “look on the heart,” as the writer of 1 Samuel puts it. I have done some reading on the subject of discernment, of trying to see with God’s eyes rather than only with my own. And I have had some formal experience with discernment.  I have been called on by two parishes to serve as a member or chair of six committees, each working with an individual discerning a vocation to ordained ministry. For the past three years, I have been engaged in reading General Ordination Examinations for the national Church, and most recently I was invited to facilitate questions at walkabouts with candidates for Bishop of Massachusetts.

Having had these experiences, I have begun to think regularly  about ways to sharpen my ability to approach situations and choices with a discerning eye, with an eye that “looks to the heart,” rather than just to surface observations. I have begun to notice some things that have been true for me and for others with whom I’ve been engaged in processes of spiritual and vocational discernment, and I’d like to offer these observations to you this morning. Perhaps something will strike in chord for you.

First of all, having discerning eyes requires an effort.  It requires practice. That practice can take many forms, and it’s best to use a variety of them—meditation, study of the Bible or other spiritual readings, theological reflection on one’s own experience, walking prayer, formal prayer such as the Jesus prayer, the Daily Office, arrow prayers, a regular retreat, Compline. Whatever forms of prayer and Bible study work for you will help you to see with a more discerning eye. In my experience, the forms of prayer and study change for individuals over time. Even if a particular practice seems quirky or counter-intuitive, you may be being led to a new form of prayer, reflection, or study that will help you see more closely with the eyes of God.  Remember that in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus puts mud on the eyes of the blind man.  Mud.  How could something so dark and thick lead to healing blindness? Recall that Jesus tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. Only after the man did the work did he gain sight. Discernment requires effort. It requires practice. And with practice, the mud can be washed from our eyes.

Sometimes it helps to have companions in discernment. While there have been many holy people who were hermits or solitaries, the vast majority of those we call saints lived out their faith in community, with all of the untidiness and noise that comes when several humans interact regularly. Having a spiritual director may be a way to gain clearer vision, the “looking on the heart” God desires of us. Perhaps a prayer group, formal or informal, is a way to assist the work of discernment in community. With several people seeking to see with eyes like God’s, the context, the “heart,” of a community can begin to become clear.

Discernment takes time.  Samuel had to watch a long line of seven sons come before him, and after that he had to wait until someone went to fetch David from the fields before discovering which son he was to anoint king.

Look for signs along the way. To borrow a phrase from Ignatian spirituality, “Discern the spirits.”  Spiritual discernment involves becoming sensitive to interior movements such as thoughts, emotions, feelings, attractions, repulsions, and desires. Whenever you notice one of these signs, reflect on it, and try to understand where it comes from and where it could lead you.

Use metaphor, visual arts, and music to sharpen your spiritual vision. Sometimes words can get in the way of finding one’s heart and the heart of God.

Finally, give thanks for whatever comes from your prayer and reflection, even if you can’t clearly see what it means. In today’s Gospel, we see how the man who had been blind from birth responds when he sees Jesus; he believes and worships. He gives thanks. Let us give thanks for the discernment that has brought us to this new place with Mark as our Rector and for the joys and challenges we will face in the future.  May we continue on our path with discerning eyes, with eyes that look not to outward appearances only, but to the heart.