On Discernment: Two Pitfalls to Avoid
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell-- and great was its fall!”

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:21-29, NRSV)


“Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” 1 

The late Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, once said: “Each individual man or woman is a unique and unrepeatable term of God’s creative love. Each must find their path to God in a way proper to themselves.” None of us is the same; we are no spiritual clone of one another. Though we are called to walk together in our journey with God, yet the way we walk our spiritual walk is uniquely different one from another.

We are all too familiar with these words of Frederick Buechner: “The vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world's deep need meet -- something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done.” We can find our life’s purpose when “our deepest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” To each one of us God has given joy and gladness (and perhaps to some us, God has inflicted upon us a deep sadness), gifts and passion all configured uniquely so that though we all have been called to meet the “world’s deep need,” the “world’s deep hunger” we all meet them in our own particular way. In our particularity and uniqueness, we discern the will of God on how to do this. Moses is not Zusya and Zusya is not Moses says the ancient Hasidic story.

The Gospel from Matthew (7:21-29) does not offer a one for all prescription of God’s will for us because each one of us has to discover that for ourselves in our walk with God. But what the Gospel suggests are two pitfalls to avoid as we each make our discernment.

The first one is contained in this verse:

“Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father. On that day, many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’”

Thinking that we are doing God’s will does not necessarily mean we are, in fact, doing God’s will. Working for God does not necessarily mean that we are doing God’s work and God’s will. This verse speaks of disciples who do wondrous and amazing Church work but fail to discern truly the work God really wants them to do. How do we avoid this pitfall? The ancient venerable Chinese spiritual teacher, Lao Tzu, once wrote: “We mold clay into pot but it is the emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful.” He also said, “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.” And again, he said, “It is easier to carry an empty cup than one that is filled to the brim.” To discern the stirring of God’s Spirit in our lives, our souls and hearts must be empty enough to receive God. If our souls, hearts and minds are like a bowl filled to the brim to the point of spilling, then there is no room for God’s Spirit to maneuver in our lives. Part of our emptying is that we must let go of our own presuppositions of what God wants us to do. We must be willing to empty ourselves of our own personal and spiritual agenda that we often mistake for God’s will.

The second warning is contained in the following verse:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell-- and great was its fall!”

Recently, a dear friend of mine passed away. As I looked for some consoling prayers, I found this ancient Aztec Indian prayer:

Oh, only for so short a while
you have loaned us to each other
because we take form in your act of drawing us,
and we take life in your painting us,
and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while
you have loaned us to each other.
2

Not only are we “on loan” to each other to cherish and love for a season, but everything else in life is “on loan” from God. We might think otherwise, but it is true that everything in life- the people we love, our health, our ministries, our careers, our accomplishments, our skills and gifts, our spiritual life and our ideas of what God has called us to do- all these are “on loan”. We can celebrate them, be thankful for them but we cannot cling, grasp and stake our own being, worth, security and identity on these things. The difficulty is when we do cling to these things, when we make an idol of God out of these things, when we absolutely think that God’s will is found in these. These things could only be “vessels” of God’s will, but they are not one and the same. When we do, the Gospel says we build our house on sinking ground, on sinking sand, and we fail to recognize God because we mistake him for those things we cling to. What if one day the spiritual “house” and spiritual practices we build all these years suddenly come tumbling down? What if there comes a time when God is asking us to let go of a particular ministry we enjoy? What if one day we find God asking us to relinquish our ideas on how we best serve him, Church and the world? What if one day our spiritual projects fall apart? I knew of a priest, who proudly called himself the “Irreverent Reverend. “He is a bit of a cynic, not in a bad sense, but cynical of church or religious or spiritual trappings. He told me of this particularly humorous story of his travel to Mount Athos. He once went to the holy mountain but more as a tourist than a seeker. When he happened by a monastery, a few monks led him to a shrine whereupon the proud monks showed him one of the vigil lamps before the shrine. The monks claimed the fire in this lamp had been burning continuously for centuries and some of them so believed that this fire miraculously fueled their passion for God. [Wow, don’t we want a burning fire like that continuously fuel our desire for God?!] So my dear irreverent friend turned to the monks and said, “Oh yeah? Is that so?” “Phoo” (my friend blowing out the fire). What if the things we cherish are suddenly taken from us, when life calls us to relinquish that which we cling to the most? With our clinging and grasping, we may find ourselves resisting God who might be calling us and leading us to a new way of life. With our clinging and grasping we may resist the resurrection life from the losses that come at the time when we are asked to relinquish those things we cherish and love. We are called to have a relaxed hold on life, an attitude we often refer to in religious circles as detachment. Detachment is not indifference to life but a refusal to settle on things of this world as if they are God; detachment is about setting our hopes, life, worth, will and security in God alone.

It must be midlife crisis. Not only did I enroll myself in a men’s hula class, I also got a tattoo… a tattoo of the seal of the Carmelite Order to remind myself about the ideals of Carmelites- emptiness and detachment- as powerfully expressed in this favorite prayer of mine I carry with me all the time, a prayer of the Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila, and I conclude with it:

How blessed is the heart with love fast bound
On God, the centre of its every thought!
Renouncing all created things as naught,
In Him its glory and its joy are found.
Even from self its cares are now set free
To God alone its aims, its actions tend-
Joyful and swift its journeys to the end
O’er the wild waves of life’s tempestuous sea!


Amen.

©2008 Noel E. Bordador
The Reverend Noel E. Bordador is a gay Filipino Episcopal priest in the Diocese of New York.


1 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. (New York: Schocken Books, 1947), p. 251

2 Quoted from Joyce Rupp, Praying our Goodbyes (Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1988), p. 69.

3 Quoted from Discalced Carmelite Proper Offices: A Supplement to The Divine Office (Oxford: 1978, Revised 2006), p. 150.


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