Discernment in Challenging Times
June 14 “Discernment in Challenging Times” Genesis 18:1-15 * Psalm 25 * Romans 5:1-8 * Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23)
Long ago in the dim and distant days of my undergrad years, I spent some time attending Reedwood Friends (Quaker) Church in Portland, which was just across the street from my dorm. I had never met a Quaker before, but was strongly drawn to the tradition through movies like “Angel and the Bad Man” and “Friendly Persuasion.” At that time, I believe I was told there was a Quaker Meeting House in Camas or Washougal that still wore traditional gray and black clothing, whether that was true or not I never found out, but Reedwood was trying to be more modern. Their pastor was a young woman who was very gentle and compassionate, as I have wished to be as a pastor. Later readings of the works of Thomas Kelly, a revered Quaker leader, would be highly influential, with the teaching of The Inner Light. I also greatly appreciate their emphasis on non-violence (e.g. “No More War!”), Creation care, and intense devotion to God and His people (e.g. the Fellowship of Reconciliation).
A classic discipline that might be very helpful for us that comes from the Quakers is the use of discernment. We usually think of discernment as a form of prayer, as we listen for God’s voice in response to our petitions and concerns, but discernment is considered to be a separate but very similar spiritual discipline. For Quakers, this is an essential corporate discipline, done during Sunday Meetings. It mainly involves, with variations, sitting quietly with the utmost humility and waiting to hear from God. At Reedwood, this would involve hymn requests as folks felt moved, wise sayings that were given from individuals at the Spirit’s prompting, and quiet times of prayer. This practice has also been used to help individuals seek guidance for specific needs through group discernment on the individual’s behalf.
Another method used in other churches, including the Methodist Church, for discernment is the “palms up” experience, coming before God with lifted hands seeking his presence and guidance. This can also be used for worship (private and corporate) and bringing petitions before God. It too involves humbly coming before God seeking discernment for how to proceed on our path with Christ.
As we seek to enter the new reality we live in as individuals and as a church, this is a time when we really need to be seeking God and his guidance. We all bring to God our prayers and hearts, but it can be difficult to slow down and just rest in Him, seeking His still small voice. Perhaps this tendency to not listen is the result of using printed or formulaic prayers, or just a lack of experience in waiting for God. Perhaps it seems strange or uncomfortable, and some people struggle to keep negative thoughts at bay. Our culture seems intent on providing constant noise and distractions, and it takes discipline to truly discern God’s will through quiet times with Him.
The Bible of course has many passages that tell us to listen to God. Here are some examples:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:26-27)
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (John 10:2-4)
Do any favorite passages come to mind? Here is one more. Please read it with an attitude of preayer:
Make me know Thy ways, O LORD; Teach me Thy paths. Lead me in Thy truth and teach me, For Thou art the God of my salvation; For Thee I wait all the day. Remember, O LORD, Thy compassion and Thy lovingkindnesses, For they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; According to Thy lovingkindness remember Thou me, For Thy goodness’ sake, O LORD. Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore, He instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in justice, And He teaches the humble His way. All the paths of the LORD are lovingkindness and truth to those who keep His covenant and His testimonies. For Thy name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my iniquity, for it is great. Who is the man who fears the LORD? He will instruct him in the way he should choose. (Psa 25:4-12 NAS, sorry for the non-inclusive language, this is still my favorite translation)
These are some of the reasons why we want to listen for God’s voice, to better learn His ways and to be led by Him. We look to Him above all others because he is the God of our salvation, the one who created us and gave us a purpose for our lives. When we are seeking to discern our way forward, we seek Him and the wisdom of others who know and love God, those who know God well and can discern his will, perhaps even for others.
There should not be anything new here, but we all need reminders during stressful times to return to the One who made us and sustains us. We seek Him for sustenance, guidance, comfort, and rest. Paul writes:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:1-8)
As we seek discernment, and even if we find it (sometimes it is a lifelong journey), God will be with us and guide us when the way is not clear. We seek those times when we are awash in his peace and love to quietly listen for His voice.
This of course can be a hard and painful process. Sometimes God seems distant. Sometimes we end up more confused than when we started. It may not be a wise adventure for those of us with mental health issues! If you think private discernment sounds weird, try group discernment. Privately done, we tend to manipulate what God gives us or even create things we think He said that we want to hear. In a group, you leave it to others to discern from God on your behalf, and you may not like what you hear. In the Methodist Church, we rely heavily on private discernment for all and group discernment for many things, but especially for pastors. I have been engaging with the committee tasked in this process lately and did not hear what I had hoped for (in regards to licensing as a pastor, I will continue serving you in the coming year as a Lay Assigned pastor), even though it was not a surprise. I was angry. I cried. I tried to blame others. But part of the process is to trust in the Spirit and those involved to provide a message from God. It may not be final, it may be just a step along the way, kind of like the Oracle in the Matrix telling Neo he wasn’t The One when he actually was. Hmm, maybe that’s not a good example, but I sure love that movie and can watch it over and over. But like Neo, we have to trust in the process, understanding that what may at one time be “no” is actually a “yes” to something else, you just need further discernment to get to where God wants to take you. When those who are practicing discernment for you are truly wise and effective, they will give you affirmations on your strengths even when they have to give you a “no” so that you will find that elusive “yes” in time. When done properly, the pain quickly turns to hope and gratefulness. You realize that you will be OK even though you did not get the answer you want. You leave the whirlwind knowing God was with you all the way. Perhaps you may even realize that what God was telling you in private discernment, but you refused to listen to, was exactly what the group told you. It not only leads to where you should be, but builds maturity and patience, as Paul says about suffering, as well as compassion and appreciation for others. My passion for connecting with God and helping others do the same remains, I just need to be open to new ways of doing so that I may not have thought of.
What is generally a sign of God’s role in the discernment process is a sense of peace, that you have indeed come to the point where you are ready to move ahead and are acting according to His will. This is a common thing heard from experienced people, to it I would add a renewed sense of purpose and new energy for whatever lies ahead. Our task as a church trying to discern our future may be a little different in that many individuals will be seeking God’s will for our church, which means at first we might have many different voices contributing, perhaps not agreeing. Our task then will be to prayerfully consider each person’s views and seek to find God’s directions, kind of like putting a puzzle together with many parts of the picture fused together into one vision of the future. It will not be an easy process, although sometimes it can be surprisingly so, and in the end, we will find that sense of peace from God and a renewed sense of our mission as a church.
We as a church have some difficult choices ahead and need a time of discernment to be ready when the time comes to make those decisions. Although we may have seen them coming, final decisions sometimes seem to spring up suddenly and we must act quickly. We need to be ready and have a good sense of where we want our church to go. We may not feel as directly impacted as other churches who are dealing with racial struggles right now, but certainly the pandemic and impending division of our denomination will. We need to be discerning and having conversations about what these challenges mean to us and what we should do. We all wish things will go back to how they were, but the pandemic may forever change the way we do church. We are already struggling financially, and this will certainly continue, as we may return and find that certain faces are no longer joining us. We may think Paul is kind of crazy here for saying that we should “boast in our sufferings” but we can certainly see the benefits of endurance and character built upon those sufferings. God will complete this good work He has begun in us, and we glorify and thank Him for directly pouring His love into our hearts. God will get us through this! Amen!
My search for help in the discernment process led me to Listening Hearts Ministries. The “insert” for today is part one of their introduction to discernment, available online at www.listeninghearts.org.