Learning to Discern: Listening to Your Life

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Genesis 12:1-4a

John 3:1-17

Before reading scripture:

I have a pastor friend who once commented:
God seldom asks people to believe or ascribe to a certain set of beliefs… but God frequently asks us to follow… God frequently gives an invitation to us to follow… which often involves a shift in vocation… in location… in the way we think… it often means giving up the familiar to follow God or Jesus on a journey without maps. Only faith… not maps…

If Steve is right, faith is as much about following as believing… or maybe it is in the following that we learn to believe… and faith is born and grows…

That seems to be the case for Abraham… who hears a call to follow God… leaving behind the familiar to go into the unknown. No mention of his faith at this point in his story… faith will come later…

Earlier we had heard the story of Nicodemus… who may be considered someone who is thinking about following Jesus… but still testing the waters so to speak… he comes with lots of questions… but even then… he is in conversation with Jesus… and signs are that he became a follower…a conversation that will lead him on his own journey…

Listen to the story of Abraham… Pay attention… listen and learn…


As I listened to the story of Abram, in a way I envy him.. the call seems to be so clear and easy… God calls… and immediately he picks up his life to go to God knows where… really only God knows where…

Nicodemus… he is receiving a call to follow… but it is not so clear is it? He is a seeker and a searcher…he has questions…  even though he is a person of deep faith in his tradition… even though he is a leader in his religious community… he is a person of seeking, searching and discerning faith… who asks lots of questions and doesn’t understand all the answers… but still he is seeking and searching…

Both have this in common… God has come knocking to both of their doors… and the question is this: will they follow… will they pay attention… listen… and be able to hear God speak to them…

They have much to teach us as we seek to discern God’s call and will in our lives… As we ask those pesky questions like: Why are we here? What is God calling me to do? Where is God calling me to go? Where do I belong? Those questions that puzzle many people—even and especially people of faith.

The challenge for us is learning to discern God’s call for us… our particular call… our purpose… Henri Nouwen said, “God speaks to us all the time and in many ways, but it requires spiritual discernment to hear God’s voice, see what God sees, and read the signs in daily life.”                                                 

So where to begin? So many places… prayer…scripture… but today, I would like to suggest that as you read scripture and pray… as you listen to God… you should also listen to your life… as an important part of the conversation…
For the clues are there as well…

That’s one of the key lessons Frederick Buechner has taught me over the years in most of his books. One of the clearest messages he has woven into his many books is to pay attention– to your life, to the people with whom you are closest, to the things that happen to you. This is the best and the most authentic way to experience yourself and God…He said,

 “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Parker Palmer wrote a book called “Let you Life Speak”  and he said,  “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am”

If I hear them right, what I hear both Buechner and Palmer telling us is something very simple if we want to learn to discern God’s call or will for our lives:
Pay attention

That’s what Abram and Nicodemus both did… They paid attention… they listened… they learned… If you stop and pay attention, you can actually learn a lot if you listen to your life.

You can listen and learn from your hearts desires… The author of our Lenten study book suggested this:
“What if God’s invitations come wrapped up in the guise of our heart’s deepest desires? What if the desire itself was planted in our hearts just so we would take notice and do something about it? What if God keeps fueling the desire until we accept the gift in it?”

Another way to think about it is this: what are you passionate about?

Around the Kirk, some of you are passionate about youth… or children… others about the environment… justice, others about study of scripture… others about mission… community gardens… it is clear where your heart’s desire is through your passions. Pay attention. Listen and learn from your hearts desires.

I would also say pay attention, listen and learn to the gifts the Lord has given you… Name those gifts… and if you cannot identify them… ask others to help you. It is very common in my experience that it is easier to see God’s gifts in others… but for some reason, we have a hard time seeing them in ourselves. You might even convince yourself that you don’t have any gifts. I think you are wrong… what would that say about God if God created you with no gifts…

It is important to identify your gifts… they are a part of who you are… a part of your life… they are the tools God has given you…

Again as our author suggested,
“…trying to discern what God calls you to do or be without looking at and naming your gifts is like trying to solve a mystery without clues. Your chances of success in discerning what you should be doing are about as good as your chances of guessing the villain from the murder mystery’s list of characters before reading a single page. God gave you those gifts, in part, so you have what you need to be what God calls you to be. So read the clues”[1]

If you need some help, I’ve got some good news for you. We have a wonderful group of people at the Kirk who are prepared to help you name those gifts.  Next Saturday we have a Spiritual Gifts workshop… think of it as a form of vocational assessment!

Pay Attention. Listen. And Learn about the gifts God has given you in your life.  They are your clues.                                                                                

So are the circumstances of your life.We have been all been born in a particular time in history and with particular circumstances.

I can’t help but think of the great story of  Queen Esther… born a Jew who becomes an unlikely queen of King Xerxes of Babylon. … Her people are captive… they come under persecution… and her Uncle Mordecai turns to her to help her people. And he says, (you remember)
 “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

So you can be of help.

Have you ever thought that this could be true of you as well? Perhaps you were born in this time and in this place with your desires and your gifts, for such a time as this…

The Bible calls these Kairos moments… Henri Nouwen describes it:
“Kairos means that the opportunity is right. It is the right time, the real moment, the critical event, the chance of our lives. When our time becomes kairos, it opens us endless possibilities and offers us constant opportunity for a change of heart…

To start seeing that the many events of our day, week or year are not IN THE WAY of our search for a full life but rather THE WAY TO IT is a real experience of conversion.”[2]

When I think about Abraham and Nicodemus… when God came calling and when Jesus came along… it was their Kairos moment. It was the right moment, the right time… They came in very different circumstances.

Nicodemus… likely middle aged… born a Jew… raised to leadership in the Jewish community… a Pharisee who loves God and loves the law… is intrigued by Jesus… and represents those who are looking for more… He will show up again later… with his fellow Pharisees who are out to get Jesus… at personal and professional risk,  he stands up for Jesus… telling them that even Jesus has a right to be heard.  The last time he will appear is when he joins Joseph of Arimathaea in preparing the corpse of Jesus for burial. Nicodemus finds himself in a few Kairos moments… ready to play his part in God’s great drama.                                                                              

Then there is Abraham… what makes him interesting is that he receives his call at age 75. We don’t often think of God calling people at that stage in life. We spend a lot of time wondering if our youth or young adults will find their call… And many will do some mid-life correction… in trying to discover a call… But here we have Abraham and Sarah receiving their call… just when we think they have reached the stage in their live when they should be winding down (ready to move into Glenaire or Woodland Terrace)… enjoying retirement…

But God comes calling… because God has something in mind for Abraham… God wants Abraham and Sarah to pick up roots, leave behind the familiar… not only to receive God’s blessing but to become a blessing for the world… To help God pick up the pieces of a broken and shattered world… a cursed world… and start once again…

It was the right time, and the right moment.                     

And how about you and me? What is God doing in your life right now? What is God calling you to do in your life right now? What are your circumstances? What life situations or immediate circumstances are before you where you can be used by God to be a blessing… to fulfill God’s purposes?

It may be in your job… where you make your living… or it may be outside your job. If you are a teacher, a doctor, a counselor, or anyone in a helping profession… this may be easier for you to see.

But let’s not limit how God works with that. I was talking about how God may be calling us to a friend in the church last week. She reminded me of how we often think of calling as a calling to ordained ministry. That is simply not true. In fact I told her… thank God not everyone is called to become clergy… We don’t need a world filled with clergy… after all… how would we eat? God needs people with all sorts of gifts and passions to answer his call for a number of circumstances.

We need people to grow food, to prepare food… to sell food… to make sure it is distributed… That’s very important. We need honest and ethical businesspeople who answer a calling to do more than make a profit in their lives… but to use their gifts with the opportunities to come their way… to be a blessing. Many of you do that by helping nonprofits… Some become philanthropists… We need IT people… where would the computer center be in Pala if it weren’t for IT people at the Kirk sharing their gifts? For such a time like that? We need lawyers… yes, I said, we need lawyers… (We joke about it but)  I cannot tell you how many times a legal situation has come up in the church where the ministers ask, “do we have a lawyer to help us with this situation?” 

One of my favorite lawyers from my home church is my friend Bill Scheu … Bill is an active republican in Jacksonville. Bill and his wife Peggy had been my youth advisors as a youth.

Years ago when the school board was fighting with the NAACP… the NAACP asked Bill to come and mediate the dispute. Bill and his wife Peggy have always been involved in the community as a part of their calling.  And they needed him for such a time as that. Bill is always doing that. He knows that his gifts are not for him alone… but to be a blessing to others…

Retirees, I’m not letting you off the hook. How about putting some of your life experiences to work for the community or church…

Do you see my point? Learning to discern means that we begin to ask the questions like: “What is God doing in my life, right now?” leading us to ask,

“What is God calling me to be and do in my life and in this circumstance… in this Kairos moment?”

To be honest, those are questions I don’t hear people (even people of faith) ask too often and I think I know why.

They are hard… hard… questions… they require us to do some deep reflection… they require us to:
Pay attention
To listen
To Learn

So to close this sermon… I want to offer you a few moments to begin that conversation with yourself and God… For a few moments of silence…think about your passions, your gifts, and what God may be calling you to do and be at this moment in your life… then I will close with prayer.


[1] Debra Farrington, Learning to Hear with The Heart

[2] Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, p 92