A journey in discernment

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 5—Year C; Acts 11:1-8; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35 Video.

Well, it’s been quite a week. So, I don’t know how to do this other than to head straight for the elephant in the room. So, this will be part sermon, part testimony, and part me talking to you as your priest.

Monday, the Standing Committee announced that I would be among the slate of four candidates who will stand for election as the seventh bishop of our diocese. I shared this news by email on Monday, but I need to be able to tell you the story of this last year.

One of the hardest pieces of this for me has been not being able to talk with you about this, but now I can, and I want to, because this is a story about discernment, and this is work that all of us are to be about all of the time. So, I’m going to share some of my process with you this morning, but I want you to be thinking about how and what the Spirit might be stirring in your life as I do so.

When Bishop Taylor announced his retirement a year ago, some colleagues encouraged me to think about this. Up to this point, I had never thought this was something I wanted do—I think it’s a really hard job, and I have watched it age people I love. I began to pray about it, and the first thing that came back was “I want you listen to this.” I couldn’t say “no” to the clarity of that voice; it would have felt unfaithful to say, “No thanks; that’s not in my plan.” That call to listen combined with my rule of three—when three people ask you to consider something, you need to pay attention (remember, that’s how our discernment to combine worship services began, except I was really hard-headed on that one so it took four people)—so, when the third person spoke to me last spring, I knew I had to pay attention. It’s interesting, but in today’s passage from Acts, Peter recalls this vision where a sheet comes down from heaven with all these “unclean” animals along with God’s instructions not to call profane what God has declared clean, and Peter recalls how all this happened three times. This vision completely reoriented Peter’s understanding of the mission before them. When you are hearing things more than once, when you are experiencing a pattern, you need to pay attention.

And so, I started to pray and talk with people who knew me well, and I started to battle those internal voices. I started living all the Brené Brown training I’ve done up close and personal. Whenever we enter the arena, there are certain voices waiting for us. The first voice that came was “there is not enough of me to do that job.” Brown calls this the voice of scarcity, all those “not enough” messages. God answered that one right away, “Yep, you’re right, there’s not enough of you to do that job. There’s not enough of anyone to do that job. If you are called to do this work, I will supply what you need.” Oh, I realized that this was going to be about faith. Man.

When Spirit is nudging you, what “not enough” messages rise up that keep you from following where Spirit is leading?

Well, if you can knock the not enough messages back, the next one that’s waiting right behind it is “who do you think you are?”—the voice of comparison, the voice that tries to keep us playing small. That voice and I have been BFFs throughout this past year. I tend to want to banish that voice, but my spiritual guide gave me wise counsel. He said: “Don’t send that voice away. Turn into it and speak back to it. ‘Who do you think you are?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, and that’s what I’m trying to find out.’” That response robs that the who-do-you-think-you-are voice of its power.

So, when you are about to take some risk or act with courage and the “who-do-you-think-you-are” voice whispers in your ear, what do you do? Do you heed it? Do you wrestle with it? Do you look at it, smile, and say, “I hear you, but you don’t get the keys to the car?”

Early on, I realized that I thought I had willing energy for the work of bishop, but I wasn’t sure I had wanting energy. And from the beginning, I decided that I would not do this unless I could sense wanting energy and could sense where there would be joy in the work. So, I have listened with my all my heart and mind and spirit. I have had wonderful companions who have helped me unearth the gifts and skills I possess for this work. I have listened deeply to the intuition of my body. I have had the incredible gift of having to wrestle with my shadow and those places in my being that still needed to be healed and transformed.

I have reflected and reflected and reflected on the gifts I’ve been given and the skills I have cultivated, and this, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is where you come in. You see, you have shaped me into the leader I have become. You have pulled me forward into uncharted waters. You have pressed me to wrestle with our prophetic call as followers of Jesus and our pastoral responsibility. Together, we have learned the value of experimenting and the power of creativity. Together, we have learned what it means truly to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys. Together, we have learned how to turn fearlessly into this moment in which we live—in the world, in our culture, in the institutional church; together, we keep turning straight into this moment and proclaiming that we will not live from a place of fear. Together, we have learned how to be present to what is dying knowing and trusting that liminal space where something is being born, even in the midst of the dying. You have shaped me into a leader who can move with courage, even when she’s really afraid; who understands the gifts that come with vulnerability; who understands the value of encouragement; who knows that we only lead from within our humanity; who is not afraid to fail, which means you can try anything. Quite simply, you have taught me what happens when we set our eyes on Jesus and love one another as he has loved us, and that’s exactly the commandment that Jesus gives his disciples today in John’s gospel.

And so, over the last year, I’ve claimed these gifts and skills that God has given me and that you have shaped. And as I have looked out over the landscape of our culture and church, I have wondered if these are indeed the gifts and skills needed to help followers of Jesus throughout the Episcopal Church in Western North Carolina make the turn we need to make. Beloved sisters and brothers, we have shared something so good, so vital, so alive—I want to encourage other communities of faith as they discover, claim, and celebrate that same vitality in their own context. I have shared this kind of vision with the Search and Nominating Committee. They have listened to me dream, and they have discerned in me the capacities that they feel could serve our diocese well. They have also discerned this about three other very gifted candidates, so let’s be very clear, there is still much discernment to be done—the Spirit is still very much at work sorting all of this out.

Last week was the retreat with the candidates out of which the Search and Nominating Committee made their final recommendations. Five intentional holy conversations over the course of four days, interspersed with worship, silence, prayer, and many informal conversations. It was hard, and beautiful, and holy throughout. Last Friday, I got the call that it was the Search Committee’s desire to recommend me. I had 48 hours to pray and give them my decision. Several really important conversations happened for me last Friday with wise counsellors, colleagues, and my spiritual guide. About midday, I could feel myself leaning into a “yes,” and my body got lighter. I had been holding such tension for weeks. I didn’t know it was humanly possible to have that many butterflies living in your stomach. And, I was really hungry. My appetite had come back with a vengeance.

Earlier that morning, I had awakened remembering what my spiritual director back in Kentucky told me when I was discerning whether or not to marry Jim. That wise nun told me this: “Cyndi, this man has been given to you to work out your salvation with in fear and trembling.” Truer words were never spoken. And last Friday, it came to me again, “Cyndi, this work is being given to you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Some of the deepest work I have had to do in recent years has been as a result of being in this discernment process. I have the deep sense that this work as bishop would cause me to continue to do my deep work, that it would grow me, not just as a priest, or a bishop, or a leader, but as a human being. For me, there is a certain obedience that comes into play when God is stirring your soul at this kind of level.

So, where might Spirit be calling you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling? And I mean salvation in the sense of wholeness. What might Spirit be calling you into that will press you to do your deep work, that will be for your greater wholeness?

And so, I called the Search Committee Chair last Saturday morning and told him that it was “with excitement and joy that I say a hearty “yes” to their desire to recommend me for the slate.” And when I let myself lean into that “yes” I could sense the joy that lay underneath it. I know what it is to love a community and to be loved by that community, and I sense that I have this capacity to love communities of faith across this diocese as we have loved one another. We have embodied gospel love for one another, but it is hard to hold that love still—and neither you nor I can stop where that love may yearn to flow. Joy is always found when we let love flow.

I discovered one other piece over the weekend that feels important. I finally acknowledged and claimed that wanting energy. I think it’s been there for a while, but in that deep “yes,” I finally claimed that I want to do this. It is tempting to hedge a bit, not to let my heart leap too much, because of course, if not elected, the disappointment will be profound. But this has been part of my journey the last few years—not to give in to foreboding joy, that place where we don’t let ourselves expect too much so we don’t have to feel disappointment. I am making a conscious decision not to hold back, but to lean in fully. And so, I’m all in. I’m letting my heart leap, and I will risk the grief and loss and disappointment that will surely come should I not be elected.

And so, I turn this back to you—as you discern where Spirit is calling you, where are you letting your heart say “yes” and leap, and where are you holding back to avoid potential future disappointment?

For today, now this might change tomorrow, but for today, I am deeply at peace. All year long, my arena has been to show up in this process as fully and authentically me as possible. I have done that, so to my mind, I’ve already succeeded. There have been so many surprising discoveries and gifts along the way, and so no matter what happens, this has been a journey well worth taking.

And, dear brothers and sisters, there is so much we will learn in this in-between time. It’s the chance to remember that the church doesn’t revolve around the priest anyway. You know that. You are the body of Christ; you are fully empowered baptized followers of Jesus. You have a great Vestry and great leadership across this congregation. God has you well in hand—God is the Alpha and Omega—your beginning and your end. All you have to remember is the commandment that Jesus has given you—three times in three sentences in that passage from John—“love one another…just as I have loved you, you also should love one another…by this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” You know how to do that better than any community I know. In that love, you are absolutely secure, and that love will see you and me, together or apart, through the days and weeks and months to come.

I don’t know any more than you do how this will all unfold, but Julian’s words ring so very true right now—“And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.”

Fear not St. Luke’s, Spirit is moving, in your life and in my life. Listen to her voice, and trust that all really will be well. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 24, 2016