December 2, 2018 The First Sunday of Advent (C)

Jeremiah 33:14–16, Psalm 25:1–9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13, Luke 21:25–36

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the One who was and who is and who is to come. Amen.

Discernment is the long, slow work of discovering the presence and leading of the Spirit of God in one’s life. This work cannot be rushed but unfolds slowly over time. Thus, it feels more like a gradual awakening than sudden and blazing insight (though this, too, is possible). To do this work well, one must be awake and attentive to the many small signs of the Spirit’s presence knowing that the Spirit will show up at any time; and one must listen deeply and prayerfully for the voice of the Spirit. To do this work well, one must, in short, wait for God.

“Waiting is not a very popular attitude,” Henri Nouwen reminds us. “Waiting is not something that people think about with great sympathy…For many people,” says Nouwen, “waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place. They want to get out of it by doing something.” (Henri Nouwen, “Waiting for God,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, p. 27.)

This is what the experience of discernment was like for me. A full year-and-a-half ago, I sensed something moving in me—a restlessness of spirit, a hunch, really, that God may be calling me to something new, something different. At first, this was disturbing to me because I also sensed that following this hunch would require leaving Church of Our Savior, but it was my intention to remain the priest of this congregation until retirement, which is still some thirteen years away. And so, I began to wrestle with God in prayer and spiritual direction, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. “I am comfortable here,” I argued. “I have made many of the best friends I have ever had.” “Yes, you have,” came the answer, “but you will always have these friends and there are more friends to be made.” “I do work that is engaging, challenging, and important, and there is still much work that needs to be done and some exciting new initiatives in the works,” I insisted. “Yes, there are,” came the answer, “but it’s time for someone else to build on what you have accomplished for there is work that needs to be done elsewhere.” “My husband is rooted in the community in which we live, both personally and professionally, and I have been privileged to have been included and accepted into those circles,” I pleaded. “Being rooted is important to me because I have been so rootless for much of my life.” “Yes, it is,” came the answer. “That is why I gave you Curt—to root and ground you as you do what I am calling you to do.” Each argument I made had a counter-argument that neutralized the original argument.

In truth, I made excuses because I knew the discernment process into which I was entering would indeed be long and slow, and would require me to be awake and attentive, to listen deeply and prayerfully, and to wait—to enter that “awful desert between where [I was] and where [I wanted] to go.” A place I did not like. But waiting, Henri Nouwen reminds us, has its properties, its nature. Waiting has a sense of promise, for example. It is active, it requires patience, and it is open-ended.

“People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait,” says Nouwen. “They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow…We can only wait if what we are waiting for has already begun for us,” insists Nouwen. “So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.” (Ibid. p. 30.) I have shared with you that in prayer and spiritual direction I discerned that God was calling me to embrace more fully the spiritual gift of prophetic witness and voice. This gift often manifests itself as speaking truth to power—constructing a vision of life in God that is often at odds with the vision of life put forward by the world, holding the powers-that-be, both religious and secular, to that vision, and calling others to work to bring that vision alive in the world. While the promise of this gift has already begun for me here, it must move into something more than it can be here. Part of the process of discernment for me has been to wait to discover where the something more would become a reality.

Waiting is active, not passive. “Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it,” says Nouwen. (Ibid.) Further, says Nouwen, “a waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” (Ibid. p. 32.) When I discerned the gift of prophetic witness and voice, I knew that it was not something that I would exercise only in a different place and a different time. I knew it was something that had come alive for me in the present, in this moment, and needed to be active now. That is what was behind my pastoral letter in the summer newsletter. Coming out of a period of intense discernment, the gift being called out of me needed to be active now, in this place and in this moment; and so, I spoke God’s truth holding the powers-that-be, in this case the secular powers, to account. Many were offended, thinking me too political, though politics is not what motivates me. Some could not bear it and so have absented themselves from this community of faith. The cost of living God’s way in the world was too high for these people, requiring them to submit their own political commitments to God, which in the end they could not do. This experience only served to confirm that the call of God to me must be lived out elsewhere, because being present to the moment means not only being present to that which is emerging within me but also being present pastorally to the recipients of this gift.

Finally, Henri Nouwen reminds us that waiting is not wishing but is open-ended. Waiting filled with wishes for something we want is merely “a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair,” says Nouwen. I wanted to remain here, to remain comfortable, to remain among friends, to remain rooted. This is what I wished for. But waiting in discernment means not wishing for what I want but being open to what God wants and hoping for that. It was only when I was willing to let go of my wish to remain at Church of Our Savior, safe in my comfort, my friendships, and my rootedness “that something really new, something beyond my own expectations could happen to me.” (Ibid. p. 33.) “To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.” (Ibid., pp. 33-4.) My constant prayer throughout my discernment was that God would keep my mind and my heart, my eyes and my ears open to the leading of the Spirit, and that, in the end, I would have the courage to follow where the Spirit was leading. That is the prayer of open-ended waiting, and it is the prayer I have taken to praying for you.

With my leaving, you now enter a period of discernment. Your discernment will not only be about determining what kind of person you want to call to be your next priest—what gifts are needed for the next season of your life as a community of faith. Most importantly, your discernment will be about who God is calling you to be in this next season, and what God is calling you to do. To discern deeply, you will need to commit yourself to the discipline of waiting—active and patient waiting with a sense of promise that is open to the leading of the Spirit of God. Do not get ahead of yourselves. Do not rush to fill the vacuum fearful that if you don’t find someone, and fast, your ministry will languish, or your membership will atrophy, or your pledges will dry-up. Commit yourself to wait for God praying only that God would keep your mind and heart, your eyes and ears open to the leading of the Spirit, and that, in the end, after you’ve discerned who God is calling you to be and what God is calling you to do, you would have the courage to follow where you are being led.

“When Jesus speaks about the end of time, he speaks precisely about the importance of waiting.” (Ibid. p. 37.) Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun and the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” “Everybody will be totally upset, and many will be deceived. But Jesus says you must stand ready, stay awake, stay tuned to the word of God, so that you will survive all that is going to happen and be able to stand confidently (con-fide, with trust) in the presence of God together in community…That is the attitude of waiting that allows us to be people who can live in a very chaotic world and survive spiritually.” (Ibid.) That is the attitude of waiting that will carry you through your discernment to the exciting future God has in store for this community of faith. Amen.

 

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