This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 17, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let us pray. Still-speaking God, whose voice we find not just in the pages of Holy Scripture, but also throughout our lives — open the eyes of our mind and ears of our heart, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture. Amen.
As you may remember, we are continuing a series, “Drinking Deep the Waters of Life”, focused on exploring how we can stay rooted in the life and presence of God the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promises is like living waters that can help give us strength and vitality to face life’s struggles and changes head on. Each week we are looking at a different way we can connect with God’s Spirit to find God’s peace, strength, wisdom, direction, and power to face life’s struggles and call. Our first week we looked at meditation and communion as ways to connect with the Spirit; and last week we looked at the power of prayer to connect us with the Spirit in our daily life.
Drew and Erica have offered to do a skit for us illustrating another side to connecting with the Spirit every day, which our Scriptures point toward.
Petitioner: “Our Father which art in heaven……..”
Petitioner: Don’t interrupt me. I’m praying.
God: But you called me.
Petitioner: Called you? I didn’t call you. I’m praying. “Our Father which art in heaven…….
God: There, you did it again.
Petitioner: Did what?
God: Called me. You said, “Our Father which are in heaven.” Here I am….what’s on your mind?
Petitioner: But I didn’t mean anything by it. I was, you know, just saying my prayers for the day. I always say the Lord’s Prayer. It makes me feel good, kind of like getting a duty done.
God: All right. Go on.
Petitioner: “Hallowed be thy name……”
God: Hold it. What do you mean by that?
Petitioner: By what?
God: By “hallowed be thy name?”
Petitioner: It means…it means…Good grief, I don’t know what it means. How should I know? It’s just a part of the prayer. By the way, what does it mean?
God: It means honoured, holy, wonderful.
Petitioner: Hey, that makes sense. I never thought about what “hallowed” meant before… “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
God: Do you really mean that?
Petitioner: Sure, why not?
God: What are you doing about it?
Petitioner: Doing? Nothing, I guess. I just think it would be kind of neat if you got control of everything down here like you have up there.
God: Have I got control of you?
Petitioner: Well, I go to church.
God: That isn’t what I asked you. What about your bad temper? You’ve really got a problem there, you know. And then there’s the way you spend your money, all on yourself. And what about the kind of books you read?
Petitioner: Stop picking on me! I’m just as good as some of the rest of those people at church.
God: Excuse me. I thought you were praying for my will to be done. If that is to happen, it will have to start with the ones who are praying for it. Like you, for example.
Petitioner: Oh, all right. I guess I do have some hang-ups. Now that you mention it, I probably could name some others.
God: So could I.
Petitioner: I haven’t thought about it very much until now, but I really would like to cut out some of those things. I would like to, you know, be really free.
God: Good. Now we’re getting somewhere. We’ll work together, you and I. Some victories can be truly won. I’m proud of you.
Petitioner: Look, Lord, I need to finish up here. This is taking a lot longer than it usually does…”Give us this day our daily bread.”
God: You need to cut out the bread. You’ve got to watch the carbs!
Petitioner: Hey, wait a minute! What is this, “Criticise me day?” Here I was doing my religious duty, and all of a sudden you break in and remind me of all my hang-ups.
God: Praying is a dangerous thing. You could wind up changed by it, you know. That’s what I’m trying to get across to you. You called me, and here I am. It’s too late to stop now. Keep praying, I’m interested in the next part of your prayer…..(pause). Well, go on.
Petitioner: I’m scared to.
God: Scared? Of what?
Petitioner: I know what you’ll say.
God: Try me and see.
Petitioner: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
God: What about Alice?
Petitioner: See? I knew it! I knew you would bring her up! Why, Lord, she’s told lies about me, spread stories about my family. She never paid back the debt she owes me. I’ve sworn to get even with her.
God: What about your prayer?
Petitioner: I didn’t mean it.
God: Well at least you are honest. But it’s not much fun carrying that load of bitterness around inside, is it?
Petitioner: No. But, I’ll feel better as soon as I get even. Boy, have I got some plans for that neighbour. She’ll wish she had never moved into this neighbourhood.
God: You won’t feel any better. You’ll feel worse. Revenge isn’t sweet. Think of how unhappy you already are. But I can change all that.
Petitioner: You can? How?
God: Forgive Alice . Then I’ll forgive you. Then the hate and sin will be Alice’s problem and not yours. You will have settled your heart.
Petitioner: Oh, you’re right. You always are. And more than I want to revenge Alice, I want to be right with You….(pause)…(sigh)…All right. I forgive her. Help her to find the right road in life, Lord. She’s bound to be awfully miserable, now that I think about it. Anybody who goes around doing the things she does to others has to be out of it. Some way, somehow, show her the right way. There now!
God: Wonderful! How do you feel?
Petitioner: Hmmmmm. Well, not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, I feel pretty great! You know, I don’t think I’ll have to go to bed tonight uptight for the first time since I can remember. Maybe I won’t be so tired from now on because I’m not getting enough rest.
God: You’re not through with your prayer. Go on.
Petitioner: Oh, all right. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
God: Good! Good! I’ll do that. Just don’t put yourself in a place where you will be tempted, that’s your part.
Petitioner: What do you mean by that?
God: Don’t turn on the TV when you know the laundry needs to be done and the house needs to be picked up. Also, about the time you spend coffeeing with your friends, if you can’t influence the conversation to positive things, perhaps you should re-think the value of those friendships.
Another thing, your neighbours and friends shouldn’t be your standard for “keeping up”. And please don’t use me for an escape hatch.
Petitioner: I don’t understand the last part.
God: Sure you do. You’ve done it a lot of times. You get caught in a bad situation. You get into trouble and then you come running to me. “Lord, help me out of this mess and I promise you I’ll never do it again.” You remember some of those bargains you tried to make with me?
Petitioner: Yes, and I am ashamed, Lord. Really I am.
God: Which bargains are you remembering?
Petitioner: Well, there was the night that Cliff was gone and the children and I were home alone. The wind was blowing so hard I thought the roof would go any minute and the tornado warnings were out. I remember praying, “Oh, God, if you would spare us, I’ll never skip my devotions again.”
God: The tornado was ten seconds away from landing on your roof when you called me. I protected you, but you didn’t keep your promise, did you?
Petitioner: I’m sorry Lord, really I am. Up until now I thought that if I just prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day, then I could do what I liked. I didn’t expect anything to happen like it did.
God: Go ahead and finish your prayer.
Petitioner: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever”….Amen.
God: Do you know what would bring me glory? You know what would really make me happy?
Petitioner: No, but I’d like to know. I want to know how to please you. I can see what a mess I’ve made of my life. And I can see how great it would be to really be one of your followers.
God: You just answered the question.
Petitioner: I did?
God: Yes. The thing that would bring me glory is to have people like you truly love me. And I see that happening between us. Now that some of these old sins are exposed and out of the way, there is no limit to what we can do together.
Petitioner: Lord, let’s see what we can make of me, OK?
God: Yes, let’s see.
We may laugh at the interchange in the skit, but it illustrates the fact that we often think of connecting with God as a one-way street: us speaking to God, without expecting God can speak to or guide our daily lives. In the United Church of Christ, we like to say “God is still speaking”. Our Scriptures and the skit remind us that God is speaking all the time in our lives, yet often we aren’t listening or tuned in, so it is like one of those old cell phone commercials, with God having to us again and again “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”
In our Gospel reading, before Jesus picks those who will be his core group of twelve disciples he will mentor individually, preparing to be sent out to share his Gospel message with the whole world, Jesus doesn’t know right away who to pick, but he first has to spend time seeking God’s face. In fact Jesus prays all night long, listening for God’s answer about what choice he should make. Though Jesus is the Son of God, as a human being, like any of us, he has to engage in practices that help him connect with God’s Spirit, so he can know his Father’s next steps for him. This is not the only time Jesus does this. The night before he is killed, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane, praying if there is any way that cup could be taken from him without having to drink it, that it happen. He is seeking for God to show him for sure if he has to continue down the path that leads him to be crucified for you and me, hoping to discern God’s will.
Romans 12 suggests that, though not as perfectly as Jesus did, we too can learn to tune into God’s voice in our lives, so that at times we can answer God’s “Can you hear me now?” with “Yes, I hear you”.
Can you think of any times a person might really need to seek God’s will about a decision or situation in their lives? How about a group of people — like a family, a church, a community?
Learning to hear God’s still-speaking voice in our lives and in our family, church, or community is called “discernment”. Today I want to explore some practices of discernment that can help us connect with the wisdom the Spirit has to offer us in the choices we face individually and also as families, a church, and as a community.
Before I turn to specific practices, I want to point out some things Romans 12 shows us about discerning God’s will.
First, discernment begins by putting away the messages or noise of the world. This is a part of what Romans 12 means by saying we need to no longer be conformed to the patterns of this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds. The constant barrage of messages about who we need to be, how we must look or act or appear to be acceptable, can drown out our connection with who we really are in our hearts, and what God is saying there.
Secondly, discernment is connected with learning to really see yourself and your life from God’s perspective. Romans 12 tells us we need to look at ourselves “with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith” given to us. Ultimately having a real sense of our own gifts and limits as individuals, as families, as communities, as a church, can help us discern God’s will. We are each made differently by God and Psalm 139 tells us we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. God broke the mold with you — and with me — and how we are made points to what God is calling us to do. Not just that but Our life story — whether from day one, or even this day and this week — naturally points us in certain directions, if we can pay attention to how God has been working in our life up to now. What God calls you or me to do isn’t something that goes violently against who we are at heart or how our life has already been unfolding, but will flow naturally from who we are made to be and how God has led us so far, even if it leads us to a very different place in life than we’ve been yet. God’s call flowing out of who we are when we are seen through God’s eyes is why two different people, two different families, or two different churches, can each feel led by God to do very different things, and yet both be hearing from God clearly. God has shaped them both in different ways, and they both can reflect God’s light and love differently.
Finally, discerning God’s will is not just an individual, all on your lonesome, journey, but something that best happens in community, with others’ help. This is part of why Romans tells us to think about our gifts, other’s gifts, and how they fit together. Ultimately, usually, if God is saying something to us personally, God will also echo that message through the insights of others who care about us among our church family and close prayerful friends.
With that backdrop, I want to introduce a couple of spiritual practices people find helpful in discerning what God is speaking in their lives.
The first is meditation and listening prayer. I have already described these two practices already, so I won’t go into much detail. But they involve putting away the noise and worries of the day on the one hand, and looking and listening for God to speak on the other.
The next practice originates from the Jesuits, a Catholic monastic order, and is called the daily examen. Jesuit monks believe Christ is present in our lives, constantly guiding and speaking, if we will just pay attention. So twice a day — usually at mid-day, and then, before bed, they pause for around 15-20 minutes, quiet their hearts and minds, and just review the day so far. They look for occasions where they see they felt God’s presence and blessings; and also pay attention to when they felt truly alive and themselves, truly close to God; and then moments where they didn’t feel fully themselves, or truly close to God. Even if you don’t follow their exact approach, by simply reviewing your day and paying attention to where you feel close to or far away from God, you can begin to get a sense of where God is moving in your life, and join God there. When we join God where we see God already working and moving, often we find God opening up new ways ahead of us to keep walking beside God and shutting off old ways behind us, leading us right into God’s will.
A similar practice to the daily examen is journaling. Every day we can write down where we see God’s presence, where we feel close to or far from God, and either what lessons God is giving us or where we think God might be leading us. Just as with examen, if you focus on where God is at work each time you journal, you can get a fuller sense of where God is guiding you.
Another key practice is seeking godly counsel. It is easy to mix up our own dreams, wishes, fears, or anxieties up with God’s guidance. Sometimes other people, if they will hear us out, pray for us, and either ask probing questions or share how they feel led as they pray, can help us discern God’s will.
This is something the Quakers have made an art form of. Quaker meetings set up clearness committees, where people with practice listening for God, join together to help someone with a difficult decision — should I take this job or that, go to this school or that, stay in, go to the next level in, or leave this relationship — and use their insights and wisdom to help others search out God’s will, never through giving advice, but through consistently asking probing questions to point people toward how they are experiencing God in their own lives.
Though we aren’t set up to have such committees on hand here at Hanks Chapel, all of us can have people whose faith and wisdom we respect, whom we reach out to for their prayer, questions, advice, and input as we face choices together. And as families, as a church, and as communities, we can practice not having just one person or one tiny group make all the decisions, but instead hearing what all of us feel God is saying to us together, listening to the multitude of counsel within us.
This coming week I would like to challenge you to think about an area you individually or as a family, or we together as a church, are facing discernment about, and use one of these practices of discernment to seek the Spirit’s will more fully. Even if you don’t have a specific question or choice, one of these practices can help you more fully see where God is at work in your life.