The Need for Discernment


It was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” I have seen this quote truncated as such, leaving the reader with the implication that earth is like heaven only on steroids. Be assured, the quote continues and reads as follows: “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit around it and pluck black berries.” Aurora Leigh Book 7

“Only he who sees” is a profound reminder of the important discipline of discernment. Perhaps the need for discernment is required now more than ever in our twitter world where in an instant we are treated to images, ideas and thoughts we see and touch with simply the click of a button.

Here is the point: eyesight does not always lead to insight. A deeper more significant response is required especially when we see something that inspires, motivates or touches us with a sense of awe and wonder about the world we live in.

Gazing at Duccio’s painting of the calling of the apostles Peter and Andrew has this effect. It requires a meaningful response. The painting reminds us of the importance found not only in the calling but in the greater need for discernment. You may be able to tell from the painting and certainly in the Gospel story according to Luke, Peter initially rejects the calling to follow Jesus. In fact, Peter goes so far as to say, “Go away from me, Lord” (Lk. 5:8).

Come back with me to Browning, “only he who sees takes off his shoes.” The imagery of taking off our shoes is more than walking barefooted. It reflects the biblical tradition of stepping onto holy ground. In Peter’s response, we see a man who is threatened, frightened, and sees no point in changing what he has always done—even if he expects a different result—in this case an all-night of fishing and nothing to show but an empty net!

Right before his eyes, Peter and Andrew pull up a full net. There is an abundance. The call to follow Jesus requires discernment but in the end the ball is in our court, or in the case of Peter, the fish is in his net. Yet, there is more to life than catching fish or playing ball. Jesus calls us to play for real and to fish for people.

We are called into a life that is filled with God, meaning it is an abundant, eternal life. We are at our best when, amidst the threats, fears, and worries, we respond with a sense of awe and wonder. Awe and wonder lead to discernment and a different response and a different life.  Unfolding right before our eyes, heaven meets earth.

All we have to do is take off our shoes.

It beats an empty fishing net. It is surely better than sitting around plucking black berries.

Image Credit: The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, c. 1308-1311 by Duccio di Buoninsegna. The Bridgeman Art Library.

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Robin Jennings

Robin T. Jennings is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, and an accomplished author, speaker and teacher who inspires his audiences with Biblical guidance and spiritual insights into everyday life. Whether he has the opportunity to speak to churches, businesses or organizations, Robin’s lifetime of work in spiritual transformation and renewal connects individuals with timely topics such as the importance of community, hope, identity and the search for meaning which are inevitably woven into his message.

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