We Seek to Discern God’s Future for God’s Church in Service to God’s Mission in God’s World

…we seek to discern God’s future for God’s church in service to God’s Mission in God’s world

A comment on letting go

Susan Kendall


This is a variation on a theme I hear or read several times a week and yet in the Bible is clarity.  We are to love, listen, give, pray, weep, laugh, sing and lament, among some other clear active verbs.  A sampling:   “Take up your bed and walk; this day you are healed; feed my sheep; love one another.”  To be provocative: might it not be good to begin by saying:  In our confused state, we seek to discern?   The Psalms is often if not mostly about one mass state of confusion or fear (leavened by powerful praise and promise).   And yet, to continue to be provocative, don’t we have a sense already of purpose and mission set before us?  I do not find in the words of Jesus that he was seeking to discern God’s future and mission, though he spent a month and a week in the wilderness, and as the writer of Luke records, went to a “lonely place” to pray; because he knew the mission.  Even in what is called the Jesus prayer of John 17, Jesus is not discerning to know the future as much as he is seeking to be present in the present moments.  Mark’s gospel doesn’t have Jesus wandering around with committees and consultants to try to figure out the next step; Jesus is with the people, with the poor, the hungry, the searching, with the lesser than and the powerful.  Clearly, there is something elusive about faith and about Jesus too and Mark makes his point before the add-on to assuage some anxiousness.

Karl Barth said, “Hope comes in the act of taking the next step.”  It reminds me of that great scene in an Indiana Jones movie—the one where a deep canyon needs to be crossed and there is no bridge—a bridge will only appear when the first step is taken.  The camera draws the audience to Indiana’s right foot and he steps out into nothingness.   It is a powerful and wonderful scene.  We are drenched with fear and anxiety partly because we are terrified of making mistakes; we have become risk-averse and we have congregations so demanding that we keep recycling pastors like we do our ten dollar summer T-shirts.  Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong:  Adventures in the Margin of Error, writes that most of us are deathly afraid of ever being wrong and we go to great lengths to account for this lack.  She suggests a number of persons through the ages at least in the western world, who explain why we might desire to seek to discern a way not to be wrong and how then being wrong becomes too often God’s issue rather than ours.  Thomas Aquinas said we have trouble because “we were banished from paradise” as “there is a gap between our own limited and blemished minds and God’s unlimited and perfect omniscience,” as quoted by Schulz.  Ok, this probably remains the main underlying theological theme to account for the desire to seek to discern a distant God whose will for us (in the specific actions where we often err) is unseen and that in itself makes us terribly insecure, not to mention the ongoing burden placed upon us of constantly getting it wrong from the moment of birth.  (I don’t agree with Aquinas that we are all born diminished.)   She also mentions Martin Heidegger who “thought that error could be explained by the fact that we live in time and space; because we are bound to a particular set of coordinates” or in other words we can’t see beyond the horizon.  Thus we must try to discern even though our coordinates are already set; sounds better perhaps than Aquinas’ words.

I do know that I don’t know what my primary understanding of faith is any longer.  And that is a good thing.  It frees me to be open to what is new or the old for that matter.  I do know that there is much writing and reading for me to do, a rich set of complexities to lean into which fall outside this theological language shaped in phraseology that makes no sense.  My vocation is changing and becoming one of letting go of my notions of God which come from a lifetime of study of the church and theology and culture.  In my context (institutionally) too much of the work of theology is trying to hold the past in place.  Writing and theological thinking is utterly institutionally-bound and ideologically-shaped like threads caught in a vacuum cleaner.  Too much is intertwined with ideas of what constitutes success, and old and tattered ways of marking what it means to have made it to the top (think big-steeple or tenure or title)  or to some sort of free-standing truth with a capital “T” (think newly-formed ways of doing or being church) which include sources of certainty and community and belonging and litmus tests based on ongoing feeling and experience at the expense of reason and good judgment or the reverse—reason which seeks to control and conserve at the expense of experience as if what we feel—through laugher or tears–is without purpose theologically.

We are like so many in the biblical narrative, in that we are ahead of the curve making our own way, getting it complicated by giving in to our fears, sinking into pits, trying to ride the waves of an unexpected storm.  We decide what we believe and spend our time arguing its merits.  We make these narratives into happy endings through a one note set of phrases, tacking on hope which reveals more about us than we might care to become conscious of—we cannot wait to contrive meaning in the midst of it all.   There is inner work of the soul or of the Hebraic understanding of soul—essential life spirit–to be done primarily as meaning emerges.   The power of the parable is that we seek and find again and again—this is hard to grasp in a linear-shaped belief system.   Hope is less an ending than an always forthright beginning and requires of us the patience to be present to the way things are.    This does not mean that we stay always with the way things are, again, if Jesus is our model.  This is the theme of the poet and “make[s] a work of soul always a perpetual beginning, and makes every effort at beginning again, as we heard …from the poet Eliot, a wholly new start and a different kind of failure.”[i]


[i] Robert D. Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher:  Research with Soul in Mind.  Sring Journal, In., 2007, 135.

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