Discernment Talk

Given at a Youth Retreat the Last Weekend of March 2017

I was blessed to participate in a youth retreat this weekend at Camp Washington in Morris CT, and I was asked to give a talk about discernment. Here it is.

“Discernment” is not a word many of us use in our day to day vocabulary. And yet we engage in discernment every single day of our lives. Discernment is simply a fancy word for the thought that happens before you make a choice. And hopefully the prayer, as well. We tend to reserve the word “discernment” for big decisions: where you’ll go to college, what you want to do with your life, whom you want to spend that life with. But we need not make such a distinction. Every choice you make in your life can involve discernment on some level or other. Continue reading “Discernment Talk”

Everyone’s heart

(Sermon for May 24, 2009 || Easter 7, Year B, RCL || Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)

Their starting lineup is down a man. While football and soccer teams play with eleven on a side, the apostles need an even twelve. No prime numbers for those apostles. Maybe they need twelve to break into four teams of three for Friday night Cranium.* Or, more plausibly, they need twelve to parallel the tribes of the people of Israel and several other biblical allusions. Whatever the reason, they have an open slot. Peter culls down the candidate pool by limiting applicants to those “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” Taking this criterion into account, the selection committee proposes two names: Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.

Then the eleven pray to God for guidance, beginning with “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” Lord, you know everyone’s heart. What a profound statement of faith – five words that speak to the apostles’ trust in God. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. This one, brief sentence guides their decision-making process in three substantial ways. They acknowledge God’s presence in their endeavor. They understand that making choices involves more than purely mental exercise. And they show humility in the face of a life-altering decision.

Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we routinely ignore God’s presence because God is always present. We forget that God is in charge of not just the miraculous, but also the mundane. Our failure to recognize God’s presence is understandable. How many of us note the sound of the engine in the car until there’s an ominous sputtering? How many of us note the reliable glow of the bedside lamp until the transformer blows outside? We adapt to routine. We organize our lives into predictable patterns. But God’s movement in our lives is the very framework upon which our patterns hang, so that movement is often difficult to perceive. On the other hand, like the electricity, we’d notice if God weren’t there.

The apostles combat the tendency to ignore God’s foundational presence by invoking God’s knowledge of their hearts as they make a decision. Lord, you know everyone’s heart is shorthand for, “Lord, you are present in all that we do, and your presence sustains the world we live in and the life we live.” With these words, the apostles invite God into their decision-making process. This invitation may seem superfluous if you believe the assertion that God is ever-present. Indeed, God doesn’t need an invitation to be present in our lives. But we often need to invite God in to remind ourselves to be present to God. Our invitation functions, strangely enough, as an RSVP, as a response to God’s presence. The apostles know this. They know that the Lord is already present, but the invitation prepares their hearts to respond to God’s movement.

Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they pray. The apostles know that making a life-altering decision involves more than mental exercise. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old adage: “Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment.” To put this cliché in more expressive terms: “Don’t let your wild, unrefined feelings derail your completely rational higher brain functions.” This advice is, of course, flawed from the start. You may be able to solve an algebra problem using your mind alone, but the rest of human experience is up for grabs.

Every decision we make has both mental and emotional components, and we ignore the emotional at our peril. When the apostles pray, Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they combine the mental verb “know” with the feeling word “heart.” They understand that God made separating heart from head so difficult precisely because our decision-making process should not attempt the separation. God gave us minds to temper our emotions and hearts to provide our minds with the fuel of hope and imagination. God infused our biology with such checks and balances, so we tragically limit ourselves when we shelve our feelings in favor of our thoughts. Only by mingling the two can we make faithful decisions.

The apostles know they are in God’s presence. They employ both their hearts and their minds as they make their choice. And they show humility in the midst of a life-altering decision. This humility is key to the whole decision-making enterprise. Every one of my choices affects more than just me, and those effects ripple into the future in permutations that my brain is unequipped to process. I don’t know how my decisions will affect others, let alone myself. Furthermore, I don’t even know myself well enough to make good decisions. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. If God knows what’s in my heart, then that makes one of us.

Humility comes in when we acknowledge our limited awareness of ourselves and the world around us. If our interior lives are clouded in mystery, how much less can we understand the trajectory of our decisions in the wider world? Inviting God into the decision-making process opens us up to the One who truly knows us. The humble prayer begins, “Lord you know my heart, and you know it much better than I do.” Confessing our shallow understanding of our own inner selves sets us on the path to faithful decisions.

The apostles pray, “Lord you know everyone’s heart.” They invite God into their decision, thus gaining attentiveness of God’s presence in their lives. They do not let their heads dominate, but mingle their hearts and minds in order to use all their faculties to choose. And they humbly acknowledge that they do not alone have the depth of awareness necessary to make a faithful decision.

The apostles choose Matthias to fill out their number. With a full complement of apostles, the Holy Spirit descends on them and they create the Church. Then they begin to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. I invite you to imitate the apostles’ prayer when you are faced with a decision. Invite God into your dilemma. Allow your heart and mind to cooperate. And be humble in the midst of the unknown, trusting that God’s knowledge of your hearts far surpasses your own. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Thanks be to God.


* Instead of Cranium, I said, “three tables for Thursday morning Bridge” at the early service.