I just began reading a book called Spiritual Discovery: A Method for Discernment in Small Groups and Congregations. I’m so excited to delve into this book because I’ve always wondered how decision-making in the church might be less Roberts rules-y and more led by the Spirit. I was talking to our new moderator, Joy Gullikson, this week and she said, “I must confess, all this talk about ‘discernment’ is pretty new to me.” And I was like, “What? Who’s talking about discernment right now?” And then, I realized that in the policy book we’ve been working on for the new board, there is, in fact, an entire section called “discernment.” Well, to be precise, that section is still blank, waiting to be filled in! The discernment section will eventually include a statement of our mission (who we are, what difference we make, and for whom), our core values (the principles we live by no matter what), and our Open Questions (important questions that we can’t answer yet and need to reflect on).
Though I love to get all “spiritual,” I certainly acknowledge that discernment can be a murky, tricky concept. Right up there next to lectio divina, right Greg Hubinger? The notion that the Spirit of God is a person, or perhaps a force, which we can involve in our decision-making, as a church, or as people out in the world, is, well, strange. Discernment can feel contrived and awkward or manipulative. Who are we to claim divine sanction for human preferences and ideas? Does God really operate in such minute and personal ways, so as to guide our decisions and actions?
It’s easy to lose our way in the terrain of discernment. However, our scripture from Ezekiel offers a few clues about what it means to do discernment thoughtfully and well. After Ezekiel has received the vision in the valley, God interprets to the prophet what he has seen, explaining, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” Professor Maggie Odell (my Hebrew professor at St. Olaf) points out that the bones in the valley do not represent the dead, but the living Israelites. Odell writes: “These are not the ones who were slain but those who have survived in exile… If the dry bones represent the living exiles, then, it turns out that the entire vision is concerned, not with the reality of death, but with despair. The exiles were the survivors, yet they have dug their graves with their fear of God’s absence.”
Long before the years of exile, the people of Israel had grown alienated from God. God called Ezekiel to preach them back toward the right path: a way of love made concrete by the law of Moses: love for God, neighbor, self, and creation. But the prophet’s words and visions seemed to have no effect, no power. As the Babylonians first besieged and then leveled Jerusalem, the Israelites witnessed and endured the worst that humans can do—war, genocide, slavery, hunger. The biblical authors present this time in the nations’ history as a punishment from God, but we need not read their story that way. It seems like enough to acknowledge that as humans, we often feel cut off from God. We wander through desolate times of trauma, loss and despair. We stray onto paths that are destructive of others and ourselves. We are torn apart by disasters and tragedies that are no one’s fault.
Professor Odell observes that:
To [the] hopelessness [the Israelites feel] Ezekiel offers a startlingly simple metaphor of divine presence: the ready availability of breath. In just fourteen verses, the word ruach occurs nine times, and while it is variously translated as “breath” (verses 5, 6, 8, 10), “wind” (verse 9) and God’s own spirit (14), we would lose the metaphorical force of this usage if we neatly differentiated between the meanings. Whether it appears in one instance as breath or in another as wind, it is all the same life-giving force. And it is all from God.”
Discernment is breathing. It’s as simple as that. Breathing in the breath/wind/spirit of God. Where is your valley of dry bones? What makes you feel hopeless or despairing? How are you cut off, disconnected, alienated from the life you want to live? Breathe. Big, cleansing breaths. Breathe peace, healing and life. Breathe God. Religious and spiritual traditions all around the world point to the centrality and the power of breath. Breath is life. God is breath. Discernment means acting, deciding, doing, and dreaming out of the energy that is God.
In the forward to that book I’m reading about discernment in congregations, spiritual director and seminary professor Jane Vennard writes this:
“The ministry of spiritual direction is often symbolized by three chairs grouped together in a triangular pattern. One chair is for the director, the person whose main role is to listen, ask questions, and lovingly respond. The second chair is for the one who has come to seek guidance, discuss an issue, tell a story, or simply be in the presence of a listening heart…. The third chair remains empty, serving to remind both persons that the true director of the session, or the conversation, is the Spirit. One week (while teaching a spiritual direction course) it occurred to me to fill that empty chair with a student observer, who was to watch and notice what was happening in the exchange. The students did not like the idea. They believed that the third person was there to evaluate and judge the others and then to tell them after the session what they did wrong. I assured them that was not the purpose of the person in the third chair, but rather he or she was to be a witness to what was happening to embody the Spirit’s love and compassion for both director and directee. I also added that those in the third chair were not allowed to speak during or after the session—their presence was to be enough. “Then what are we supposed to do?” they asked. “Pray,” I responded, “in whatever way seems right to you. You might hold them in light, you could pray for your own heart to open to enable you to listen without judgment, or simply sit and breathe.” With practice, the students discovered that the exchange was always enhanced by the presence of the compassionate observer. The directors reported that they felt supported and encouraged, that their questions and responses often seemed guided and they were reminded they were doing holy work. The directees shared that they felt able to go more deeply into their stories and were able to share more honestly when they remembered the loving presence of God. By the end of the semester, they wondered how anyone could do spiritual direction without an actual compassionate observer being present!”
Jesus, in his life, ministry, death and resurrection, showed us how to be people of discernment, people who breathe. Pentecost means that we, the church, become the living, breathing body of Jesus. Because he is no longer physically present in the world, we are given the power to sit in that empty chair reserved for him, to act as the compassionate observers who bear witness to his spiritual presence. Breathing is, on one level, so not a big deal. After all, we do it automatically. But the breathing of the church on Pentecost, breathing in the spirit of Christ, breathing consciously in the mercy, love, connection, peace, and justice of God is a huge, healing, transforming deal. It leads to a startling change in us and those around us. It’s like a violent wind that swirls and churns and sweeps away all the stuff that needs to go. It’s an inspiration so wild and intense that our hair catches fire but doesn’t scorch. It’s a new, God-centered way of hearing and seeing and loving the world—with its diverse and beautiful languages and cultures and places. The breathing of Pentecost is the incubator for powerful dreams and visions that propel us beyond all that we can ask or imagine.
Next week, on May 31, we will gather for a congregational retreat. We will breathe together and we will see what happens, how the spirit shows up. Please be present if you can, as we come together in discernment. If you can’t be with us, would you take some “breathing” time on your own? Will you pray over these questions, in any way that you pray: What is God calling us to do and be? How should we, as a church, invest new financial and people resources in the next 3-5 years? Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come, wind and flame of Christ. Come, breath of life. Amen.
 Tran, C. and Boyd, S. (2015). Spiritual Discovery: A Method for Discernment in Small Groups and Congregations. Guilford, CT: Rowman and Littlefield