Madeleine L’Engle, one of my favorite authors, once said that there were only a handful of stories in the world. We go on recycling them, telling them over and over.
One of those stories goes like this.
Once upon a time there was a little boy in distress. He had an impossible job to do. Just as he was about to believe that he could not accomplish his task, magically a goddess appears, inviting him to ask for anything. Sensibly he asks not for instant rewards or pleasures, but for the ingenuity to complete his task. Because he is so sensible, the goddess grants his request, and on top of it tells him that he will get all sorts of fringe benefits as well.
Sometimes the name of the story is Jack and the Beanstalk. Sometimes the person in trouble is Cinderella. In one story it is a pharaoh. Sometimes the gift-giver is an enchantress or a witch. By now you might be thinking that you’ve heard such a story recently. Very recently. Like about ten minutes ago in the lesson from 1 Kings. It is the story of Solomon’s request. It actually is the story of a dream of Solomon. Solomon dreams that God comes to him and says, “Ask what I should give you.”
Stop. That’s right where we need to be to get into the story.
Imagine for a moment that the dream is one you are having. God, or one of God’s surrogates—prophet, wish-granter, whatever—asks what you want. What might that be? Let me guess. Health? Financial security? One relationship that will give your life meaning and joy? Work that is fulfilling and meaningful? Security and blessing for your family and loved ones?
As you are dreaming and sorting out the possibilities in your dream, let me throw in another possibility.
That is what Solomon prays for. Or more precisely, in his dream he prays for “an understanding mind…able to discern between good and evil…” He says he wants it in order to be able to govern. One would hope that others in his situation might pray for the same gift.
Since, after all, we are dreaming—we might be tempted to say “just” dreaming—what might happen if we moved whatever was on that list of things we were considering a moment ago and made a space for discernment? What might that be like?
You might be asking yourself, “Why on earth would I pray for discernment when I don’t have the foggiest notion of what it is or what I would do with it?” Fair enough.
Discernment is, generically speaking, the ability to tell the good from the bad (like Jesus’ scribe in today’s gospel lesson), the faculty by which we decide what is valuable and what is worthless or what is somewhere in between. Just a little reflection quickly brings us to the point of acknowledging, maybe, that without discernment, we really can’t get very far. Voices natter at us all the time telling us what is important, or what we should want, or what we should do. Parents direct. Spouses and lovers cajole. Some voices even bribe. Commercials entice. The internet creates its own self-authenticating narratives about good and evil and whom we ought to vote for and why. Billboards and flyers, even the church bulletin, suggest things we ought to consider or do or commit to or buy. How do you know what to do when you are not sure about the sales rep?
Our faith tradition keeps making the point that among all these voices that yap and chatter away is the voice of God. Discernment is the effort to hear God’s voice and to distinguish that voice from all the other voices that we hear.
Now I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with that language.
When I worked years ago in a mental hospital, I learned that it just didn’t do to talk too persuasively about hearing voices, let alone hearing the voice of God. My audience would take me all too seriously. That was a valuable lesson. I suggest that “hearing the voice of God” is a very powerful metaphor, but still a metaphor—a symbolic way of talking—about getting at the Truth of the matter.
Let me give you an idea of what I mean. Not long ago I had to change dentists. I found a dentist, recommended by a friend who confessed that this dentist was so nice and thorough that he found himself looking forward to going to his semi-annual appointments. Well, that seemed a little over the top, but on the strength of his recommendation, I went. On my first visit, the dentist asked how I brushed and how often I flossed, etc., etc. I drew a breath and answered him with perhaps a somewhat inflated report of flossing. He proceeded to coach me, after all these six decades, in how to brush my teeth. He told me that the trick was to focus on the place where teeth and gums come together, because that is what needs attention. I have to confess that I had never paid much attention to my gums, let alone to that place where they meet teeth. I had always concentrated on the obvious: my teeth.
Discernment is a bit like brushing one’s teeth in the way I am now doing: practicing every day a basic life skill by concentrating on what is so obvious that, except I pay attention to it, I would miss it.
After I had been practicing my brushing for a week or two, religiously—to coin a phrase—it occurred to me that the practice of discernment is even more like looking at a printed page. Whenever I read a printed page, I never look at the page. I go straight for the words. And I don’t look at the way the words are composed, of lines and dots and curves called letters. I immediately jump to soaking up the meaning that those words are conveying to me. But the truth of the matter (remember that is what we are looking for),
the truth of the matter is that nothing on the page would or could make any sense were it not for the white space around the words and in between the letters.
Is it possible that God is like the white space on the page? The great space that supports and sustains all that is on the page, silently present, allowing letters to do their work and words to pop out of the background with voices all their own, conveying meaning to the eye beholding them and the ear imagining them? Discernment is paying attention to the spaces that surround the sights and sounds and movements of life.
Discernment is getting behind and beyond the words. Discernment requires no special instruments or directions, just the willingness to pay attention to what is there, silently waiting to be noticed.
Once we begin paying attention, we might find ourselves feeling a bit odd at first. Any new behavior, any new practice, is a bit strange. Someone has said that no new behavior is a part of you until you have done it for thirty successive days. So until we pass that threshold, or some similar one, we are apt to find ourselves feeling something like the pinch of new shoes.
The very next story in the biblical text after this dream of Solomon tells us the famous story about how Solomon adjudicated a case involving accusation and counter-accusation of two women. Solomon begins practicing his gift of “an understanding mind, capable of discerning good and evil.”
This is the first sermon of a series I will be preaching between now and Advent. Others of my colleagues might wish to join me. But I will be looking with you at some of the practices—the behaviors, the actions—that form the Christian life, where “the rubber hits the road.” For me, discernment is the key practice. And why? Because the central task for any of us is to fashion our lives according to the Truth so that we might live as authentically as possibly in line with the Truth. Or, to put it in more conventional Christian language, I want to discern the Will of God so that I can live in accordance with it.
How do you and I practice discernment?
We can take some specific actions. I want to mention three.
If you have been listening to me preach and teach for four years, you have surely by now heard the message that if you are going to find God anywhere, you will find God in the stuff of your life. Where your challenges, your griefs, your hopes, your shame, your joys are: there is God, like the space surrounding the words on the page. Pay attention to what is going on in your life. Pay attention to your dreams, like Solomon. They are what John Sanford, a priest and psychoanalyist, called “God’s Forgotten Language.”
Or take up a practice of journaling. Or perhaps letter writing, which I find easier to do than journaling. Any of these are actions you might take that will help you slow down, pay attention to your life, and listen to what the voice of God is saying to you, pointing you to the truth of the matters in your own life. You might discover yourself, as you practice these things, as many do, discerning dimly at first, and then little by little more clearly, that there are truths you must confront, statements you can make, changes you can initiate, tasks you can do. Soon you might become incrementally more open to consider, and ultimately more sure some of those things are right for you. You might discover that you are on your way to becoming like that scribe in Jesus’s parable, who is more and more able to pull out of her treasure at appropriate times what is new or what is old and know why she is doing it.
To give your process of discernment a center and a touchstone, add to it an ongoing dialogue with scripture. These stories, like Solomon’s dream and Jesus’ parable, are among the many that you can walk into and begin living. You might find that your own story is one of the few that make a world of meaning and sense of the world.
And a third action you can take is something you have already done this morning. Stay connected to the community of faith. Get up, come among us, be in dialogue. Question. Listen. Speak. Test. Argue. Dream. The truth of the matter is sometimes a lot easier to get at when several, or even a number, of us are searching for it together.
Solomon, Solomon! Time to wake up! What you have asked for, you already have!
A sermon preached in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Sunday, July 27, 2008