“People of the Book” and the Power of Story in Christian Community Discernment
Christians, like our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers are known as “people of the book”. The importance of scripture reading and the written stories of God’s relationship with God’s people are at the center of the lives of these spiritual communities.
Worship, work in the world and the life of personal ethics and morality are shaped by the books of scripture that are at the heart of our traditions. We find a great deal of meaning in the collections of stories and wisdom passed along from generation in the faith.
You may be surprised to learn that Islam holds both Jesus and his mother Mary in very high esteem. In fact the Koran devotes an entire ‘surah’ or book to Mary’s role in Islam and how she lives out the life of a willing servant. Similarly, Jesus, like Muhammed is identified as a prophet, one who speaks for God, in the Koran.
Whether we are Muslim, Christian or Jewish we all trace family lineage back to Abraham and Sarah. In particular it is the call of Abram to move from relative comfort and security in Ur of the Chaldees ,“ Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.,” which characterizes the emergence of what we call today monotheism from a world in which a plurality of ‘gods’ was the rule rather than the exception.
Hold onto that verse for a bit, I will come back to it later.
Before writing any of the stories of the Old Testament, New Testament or Koran down, they were passed along orally. Because of this it is fair to say that before we were ‘people of the book’ we were ‘people of the story’. We make meaning by story. We remember events and people past through story. We share great truths through story.
I am a firm believer in the deep truth attributed to Roman Catholic Theologian, Storyteller and Author Megan McKenna, “All stories are true, some of them actually happened.”
In scripture story is often used to help convey truths that are more universal and primal than the events they represent.
The Bible, as we know it, is a collection of books-a library if you will-that tells a bigger story. It tells the story of God’s relationship with God’s people and vice versa. This is true individually and as communities of faith from age to age.
I remember being introduced to a mnemonic device as a young person that I originally thought was interesting. One of my early mentors in the Christian life. He wrote the word history on a piece of paper. Then he wrote it again by making it two words- his-story. He made the assertion that all of what has happened and will happen in the world is held together in Jesus Christ. Later on I considered it sort of contrived and silly.
As I have aged and noticed that all things are indeed in Christ (one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite phrases). I believe this old tools is as useful as it ever was.
This all serves as background to the work before us here at St. Mark’s. The story of this parish is a really good story and it’s truth goes deeper than the facts and events of its past.
When a group of folks gathered around 1963 to start a new Episcopal Church, it is my understanding they did not have a building. What they did have was a sense of God calling them together to be a witness to this area of Hampton.
In addition to being called to worship and witness to a particular place, St. Mark’s was called to witness and worship in a particular time.
Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race met here at St. Mark’s and the ground was prepared for a truly diverse congregation to grow in the five acres and building it now occupies. There were life long residents of the Peninsula worshipping with newcomers to Langley from NASA, the Air Force, the Navy and other government agencies. There were white folks and people of color that found a spiritual home at St. Mark’s.
Decades later another marginalized group found oasis at St. Mark’s when the congregation became the first Integrity affiliated congregation in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Integrity being a group of Episcopalians committed to full inclusion for LGBTQ folks in the life of the church. This ‘radical welcome’ came at a cost when a big conflict in the life of the congregation divided people and a goodly number left.
As a longtime member of the parish wrestled with gender identity issues, the leadership of St. Mark’s made a conscious decision for acceptance. It was a costly and faithful decision. This is the heart of discernment. Radical welcome continues to be one of the core values and gifts that St. Mark’s has to offer to the world.
Discernment differs from decision-making. Traditional decision-making is like using the ‘Ben Franklin’ method. You know what I am talking about. This method is putting two columns on a page representing a choice between two options and listing the pros and cons between the two. When we have seen the overwhelming number on one side of the ledger, the choice is clear.
Discernment, spiritual discernment, is different. We can have two or even many more columns each with many reasons supporting their candidacy for what doing the ‘next right thing’ might look like for an individual or community. What tips the scales in spiritual discernment is not the number of reasons for choosing a particular options, but in looking for where the Holy Spirit leads.
This typically happens best in community and only through a commitment to prayer and time.
Decision-making is about finding answers. Discernment, at its most faithful, is about seeking out and living into the questions.
What will guide is in the discernment event we have today and looking forward will emerge first in seeking which questions we are to answer. We will start with these four:
What brought you here and keeps you here? What are the core values at St. Marks? What are your hopes and fears going into an unknown process? What ideas can you offer as we move forward? From what we hear from one another in this process and in our commitment to pray regularly for the parish leadership and one another, we trust that God’s preferred and promised future will begin to emerge in the form of questions that will lead us to hear God’s voice ringing in our ears as in Abraham’s bidding us to, ““Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.,”
This may not necessarily mean leaving this space, but it will mean leaving some of our comfort zone and previously held way of doing things behind.
May we all prayerfully travel together trusting that the story of St. Mark’s is far from over and that the next chapter will be written in God’s hand if we are able to stay focused and in a place of trust and radical hospitality.