Sunday, 14 January 2018

Discerning God's will for us- Epiphany series- 2



Today we are continuing with our sermon series based on questions that have been submitted by the congregation. This morning we are looking at two questions.

The first is- 
“Where are we going in the emerging church of 2018?”

And the second is- 
“What plan does God have for me? I feel like I am spiraling out of control with no end in sight.”

Before we get into dealing with these questions, I just want to speak to the person who wrote the second question. … I think just about everybody in this room feels deeply for you. I know as soon as I read it I felt my heart hurt for you. … I think most of us have felt something similar, so please don’t feel alone or feel like no one cares. That is a very difficult place to be, spiritually and mentally. If you want someone to walk with you through that feeling please let us know, or please reach out to someone you trust. …

The reason I put these questions together is that they are both about discernment. They both have to do with trying to understand where God is leading us. The question essentially becomes, “How do we hear God?”

I’m just going to start with what I would do if I was feeling this kind of discomfort and feeling like I was at a moment when I needed God’s particular direction. ... Assuming that there wasn’t any major sin in my life that I haven’t dealt with, the first thing I would do is give myself a bit of a spiritual check-up.

The question, 
“What plan does God have for me? I feel like I am spiraling out of control with no end in sight”
 might indicate a spiritual hunger. I suspect that feeling of spiritual hunger is actually a way that God is speaking to you. … When you feel hungry or thirsty your body is telling you that you are missing food or water. Or you might be hungry because you are missing a nutrient. … In a similar way, when a question like that arises within us it can be an indication of a spiritual hunger telling us that we are missing something.

To diagnose our spiritual hunger we might want to begin by looking at our overall spiritual health. It is important that we periodically and prayerfully review how we are living our life. Are we living a healthy Christian life? In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus tells his disciples, 
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
 A healthy spiritual life has to do with Jesus saying, “Obey all I have commanded you”. Christ’s commands are given to us to we can lead a joyful life empowered by God’s Spirit to transform the world around us. One way I find helpful to review my life according to the commands of Christ is to think of 3 directions- 
 Up, In, and Out.

First, we will look at “Up”. “Up” has to do with our relationship with God. We are creatures made for worship. How is our relationship with God? Are we worshiping God well? Are we putting our hearts into a worshipful place when we come to church? When we worship do we see God as present with us? When we sing hymns are we conscious that we are singing them to God? When we say “amen” to a prayer do we realize we are saying “I agree” to something that was said to God in our midst? When we receive the bread and wine are we conscious that Christ is giving himself to us in that moment?

But, our relationship with God is about more than what we do on Sunday. If our relationship with God is only something we deal with on Sunday then we are on a starvation diet. Do we take time to walk outside and inwardly praise the creator of the trees, and the sky, and the sun and the moon? Do we listen to beautiful music that draws out heart to God? Do we praise the One who gave health to our bodies- the heart pumping blood through our veins, the air that fills our lungs? Do we have a daily habit of prayer and Bible study?

“Up” is all about our relationship with God. In Matthew 22:37, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, 
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”.
 This is what “Up” is about. Are we loving God well? Is that THE main priority in our life?

Second, we will look at “in”. “In” has to do with our relationship to one another. It has to do with community. Jesus said the second most important commandment is, 
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39).
 If you want to know if you have a healthy relationship with this community, ask yourself this question, “Within the Christian community, is there someone you feel you could call at 2 am if you were dealing with a tragedy?” If we don’t have someone here we know that well, then we can develop those relationships. One way to do that is to form a small group that meets weekly.

In the context of that group though we can’t keep people at arm’s length. We need to be willing to be vulnerable and available to those people. We need to share what we are actually thinking and feeling. We need to share our successes and our failures- Our struggles- Our sins- Our virtues and strengths. Are we available to others? Do we make time for them? Do we listen, rather than dominate the conversation? Do we listen for what is the deep core of meaning in the life of the other person? What brings them pain? What brings them joy? What is their relationship with God like? … Do we have relationships that help us mature in our faith? Is there someone in our life we see as a mentor? Is there someone whose relationship with God we respect, who guides us? Is there someone who is less mature in their relationship with God that we actively work to develop a friendship with?

“In” is all about our relationship with other Christians, especially in our church. I sometimes hear people say, “I don’t have to be a part of a church to be a Christian”. When someone says that they should realize that, in terms of Christian history, they are part of an incredibly small number of Christians who have thought that way. Even the desert fathers and mothers who went off on their own to lead lives of prayer soon had people coming to them to learn from them. Christianity has always been a communal endeavor. We need each other to grow into the people God wants us to be. We need to learn from each other. We need to know what it is like to love and be loved. We even need to know what it is like to bump into each other so we can learn patience and forgiveness. … When I am all by myself it is easy for me to feel holy, but it is often when I am with others that I see my own impatience. When I am with other faithful people, my own faith is encouraged. A healthy Christian life is a communal life. I love Paul’s summary in Ephesians 4:11-13- 
“The gifts [God] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
A healthy church has a variety of people with a variety of gifts who are all working together to build up the body of Christ so that we can grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. 

Finally, I want to talk about “out”. “Out” is about our service to the world. As Christians, in someway we need to be involved in helping hurting people. We should be involved in making the world better. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says to his disciples- 
“You are the salt of the earth”, 
and 
“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14).
 Salt is a preservative. In the ancient world salt was put on food to keep it from spoiling- it fought against decay. Jesus is saying that we are supposed to be the preservative of the world. Similarly, light shows what is hidden in the dark. With the light we can see the path and any dangers in the way. If we are the light and salt of the world, then the world should be better for our being in it. This neighbourhood should miss us if our doors closed. The city of Red Deer should miss us if we shut down. Our neighbours’ lives should be worse if we moved out of the neighbourhood. This can be formal, like serving at the Mustard Seed with our team, but it can be as simple as inviting a lonely neighbour over for tea. “Out” means living a life of service to others. Jesus says that we will meet him as we encounter the stranger in need, 
“as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

I have found “up”, “in”, and “out” to be helpful for giving me a general check-up in terms of my spiritual health. But, there are times when we are generally spiritually healthy and we still feel a spiritual discomfort that causes us to search out God’s will. This means God might have something more specific to say to us and this is the harder task of discernment. The real challenge of discernment for most of us isn’t deciding between smoking crack or going to Bible study. The real challenge is between choosing between two good things. Should I stay at this job or go to that job. Should I say yes to helping with this ministry, or will that stretch me too thin? That is the hard task of discernment and the Bible doesn’t always have a verse for that. Sometimes God has something very specific to say to us because he has a specific call on all of our lives. When we look at the saints we see very specific callings. St. Francis of Assisi was called to a life of joyful poverty, service to the poor, preaching, and love for creation. St. Thomas Aquinas was called to an academic life, helping the church describe God and the mysteries of theology.

So how can we hear God's specific word to us? Most commonly, and most importantly, God can speak to you directly through your thoughts. If want to plant the idea of an elephant in your mind I have to use my vocal chord to speak the word “elephant”, then your eardrums have to hear the sound and interpret the word, Then you have the idea of an elephant in your mind. … Well God can bypass all that business and just give you the thought. That doesn’t mean all your thoughts are God speaking to you. … You still have to discern which thoughts are from God and which aren’t, which is partly why it is important to know our Bibles well and to have mature Christians that can help us hear. Over time we can learn to recognize that voice better. This is the primary way God speaks to us as individuals, but most of us haven’t been taught to hear that still, small, loving, and authoritative voice. And we can’t force God to speak. Sometimes that silence is important as well. Hearing God’s voice can be challenging.

Sometimes these thoughts take the form of dreams, or strong feelings. Sometimes you might have a friend say something to you that strikes a chord deep inside you. Sometimes you notice strange coincidences. Sometimes a passage of the Bible just keeps jumping into your mind. Sometimes a memory, or a person keeps coming to mind. … When we do hear God saying something to us, it is important to test what we are hearing against the general teaching of Scripture. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 Paul says, 
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” 
Sometimes a mature Christian friend or a good spiritual director can help us with this testing as well.

I haven’t said much about the future of the church, but that is because if we have a church full of people doing exactly what I just described, then the church will be fine. Ultimately it is God’s church and the church will always be fine, but that is no guarantee for us as St. Leonard’s. The Church, as God’s people in the world, will always exist somewhere, but if we want to be a part of what God is doing in the world then it is important that we are constantly seeking out God’s will and trying to live lives directed by that will. AMEN


Suggested reading:

Hearing God by Dallas Willard
The title sort of says it all. Willard was a brilliant spiritual teacher and a philosopher. He speaks about the "still small voice" of God and how it is that we can hear God in our lives.   

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
This book outlines a number of ancient Christian practices that have helped Christians in their spiritual lives. This is a book I go back to again and again. When discerning God's will we may want to practice solitude and silence for a time to make space to hear God more clearly. I have also found this book to be a good guide to the practices of a healthy Christian life. (You might also want to look at James Bryan Smith's Good and Beautiful... series, which explores these themes further)

Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas H. Green S.J.
I haven't finished reading this one yet but from what I have read so far it seems like a very good guide to the practice of discernment. Green outlines what the Jesuits are famous for. 

The First Spiritual Exercises adapted by Michael Hansen S.J. 
St. Ignatius of Loyola is well known as being the founder of the Jesuits and for leading people through a retreat he called the Spiritual Exercises. For those who are unable to go on a 30 day Spiritual Exercises retreat at a place like Loyola House, this book is a way to experience the Exercises at your own pace and at home.  
  
The Living Church by John Stott
In this book Stott attempts to consider the basics of the Church. Just as C.S. Lewis tried to explain the common core of Christianity in Mere Christianity, so Stott attempts to write a kind of Mere Church book that focuses more on what the church has had in common while still expressing his own convictions. This is a helpful book at a time when there is so much change within our culture, which the church must engage.     

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