Tag Archives: discernment

Cumbersome is good for us: Love is not easy

The church makes decisions and plans in any number of ways. We decided making decisions as a community was crucial in an age where individualism kills the soul, loneliness is epidemic and people really need to see the church in action not hear about it in theory. So our mutual mapping process is central to our calling as a church. It is much more radical and important than we seem to think!

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A moment in our weeks-long mapping process.

If we are used to the risky work of participating in mutual discernment, our prayer might be, “Oh Lord, that is a lot of time and energy!” But if we are mapping like it is a new beginning, here in our eternal now, then the process teases out all its inherent joys:

  • It includes the most recent partner, so a living body is strengthened and grows. I want to live in one.
  • It listens to the latest and greatest word from the Lord, so the soul of our group is fed and energized. I love it when you can feel that happening!
  • It teaches us the lessons of love that only serious public dialogue can do, so it makes us real in a world of fake. Nothing makes me feel more relevant.
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Porziuncola. Scene of a lot of Franciscan mapping, now surrounded by its pilgrim reception hall.

Resistance to the work of love has killed some of the best churches

One of the things I learned in Assisi is how the church bureaucrats stole the heart of the early Franciscan way of “mapping.” Francis called Pentecost gatherings and many of the brothers showed up to have a creative , disorganized, Spirit-led, and often-miraculous time of seeing what God was doing and feeling out what should happen next. It all happened at the navel of the Franciscan world: Porziuncola.

As soon as Francis was too weak to exercise his tremendous weight over the process, as a living “saint,” the Pope-led hierarchy of the church made the brotherhood into an “ordo” (that’s Latin for “order, rank, class”) according to canon law. The order people folded the radical Francis right back into everything he had resisted and made the Franciscans like the other monastic orders he never wanted to join.

Francis never saw a need for a rule or much of a map, but he sure managed to make an impact! He mostly relied on the presence of Jesus and the simple, but profound, style of teaching he picked up from the Bible. His own teaching style was like a living parable that he often explained in proverbial fashion.

In any organization, the “ordo” people have a point and I have reluctantly served it in order to build something for Jesus in this VERY organized United States. But the parable and proverb people have a deeper point, and I hope we never lose track of it. Or, I could say, I hope we never have it stolen from us by people who think they are doing us a favor by conforming us to the prevailing ways of the world.

Practicing discernment is harder, but more important, than interpreting law

Every subsequent Pentecost is going to be followed by “ordo people” talking over the future with “proverb people.” It happened in the early church. It happens among us every year as we map, and that is good for us.

For instance, our pastor, Ben, made a list of things he heard at the recent discernment meeting concerning our next Map. One of the things on the list popped out at me: The proverbs are cumbersome.”

Since I was probably in Padua when that critique was offered, I have no first-hand knowledge of the context. But I have my suspicions, since I have heard similar things since forever. Similar thoughts have been popping up ever since economic efficiency and Enlightenment/scientific thinking created a pulpit and tried to make Jesus preach from it. I texted Ben a smiley face and cheerfully said, “Perhaps your 10:30 meeting should become a drive-thru!”  That would be less cumbersome than relating, after all.

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Innovation from Upland, CA, my old stomping grounds.

My point was, proverbs of every kind are supposed to be “cumbersome!” — in a good way. Maybe the biggest reason they persist in being hard to handle is because we should slow down and mentalize! — they force us to do that.  Don’t you think we should resist assessing whether information is taking 30 seconds more to receive than it should?

The proverbs we have collected so far as part of our Map aren’t “information,” anyway. They are invitations to keep talking, to slow down and listen to God and each other. They are the best little parables we could come up with to express the sense of our discernment about who we are called to be. They are more than the traditional value statements ordos/organizations put in their business plans.  They are proverbs like the ones in the Bible, such as, “Love  your  enemies  and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-5). There’s cumbersome for you!

Here are a few reasons hanging in there with “cumbersome” is good for us.

Cumbersome fights the desire to control the data and feel powerful.

A proverb is designed to be open-ended. One open end faces God, who is going to supply meaning daily (like “daily bread,” right?). The other end is open to the Body of Christ, where ongoing dialogue brings the best discernment to the moment (if we have a “common spirit” as Paul hopes). Chewing on a proverb with others is part of being appropriately out of control. It is another way Jesus heals us from the wounds of data biting us in the butt all day.

Cumbersome develops your spiritual capacity.

It is a difficult world; we can’t afford to be spiritually shallow!

I used to “fight” with a much-loved covenant member who really wanted a Wiki for our teaching, which he thought was splendid. I told him, “I, and others in the Body, are personally much better than a Wiki, which is why you want a Wiki!” But we gave him and other “ordo” people the Way of Jesus site, which will one day have a better table of contents so people can take less time exploring and access what they are looking for.

But, I have to say, wandering around the foothills of the Kingdom of God, taking time, listening, having our normality challenged is SO much better than seeking God according to what we already know in a fashion we already understand. We don’t know anything like we are known, Paul says.

Cumbersome assumes we need help.

I hope we keep resisting well-meaning people who think it is an outrage, or a shame, if they need someone’s help. Collecting stories, parables and proverbs like the early church and first Franciscans is how we form life in Christ together. Proverbs call together a circle of people who add their personal angles to and applications of a big truth. “What is it?” and “Who am I?” are not the only questions! “Who is God? To what is Jesus calling? Who are WE?” are basic questions for forming new life in Christ.

Goodness is not found alone. It usually comes in a way that seems cumbersome to our normality. Solitude always leads to love. And love leads to goodness —  both for us and for others. Love of and for others, naturally leads to cumbersome mapping,  and irreducible proverbs in the 1200’s and in the 2000’s. I’m glad Jesus is getting us and our brothers and sisters all over the world to risk the miracle of tangible, practical, cumbersome love in an age when it is hard to find.

How do YOU think people see your church?

The first question we asked our cells in order to gather some discernment about where God is leading us was this:

When a newcomer or unbeliever gets to know us, whether in a cell or Sunday Meeting, through one of our events or teams, or through an individual, what are the things they will most immediately notice about us and what gifts will they find easiest to access?” 

What do you think?

Examine yourselvesWe dared to take Paul seriously when he tells the Corinthian church: Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Cor. 13:5). If we can be honest about what others see in us, we will not just follow the scripture, we will probably follow our humility right into spiritual growth! We are who we are, but who knows what we might become if we listen?.

Our cells had a LOT to say about this question (and all the other questions!). When I set my mind to sort all their responses, I came up with eighteen different headings for this first one! I was encouraged by what the cell members thought people see in us when they first get to know us. I thought you might be encouraged too. I am not going to list all eighteen things! But I thought I would give you ten. I’ll give you my heading and then one of the answers I culled out which intrigued or moved me. So you get my heading and one answer verbatim.

Whether you are part of our church or not, these things might give you something to think about. What’s more, I don’t doubt someone who is in our church will think the person I quote does not completely know what they are talking about. So we all might have more to think about, too. Regardless, I think we’d all like to be a church moving in the direction these thoughts signal.

Whether you think your church is seen in these ways or you think it just ought to be, let’s pray that we get there. Yesterday was Pentecost, and the Spirit of God is moving to take us into our fullness.

Here are ten ways the cell members think newcomers see us:

We are welcoming/hospitable/friendly/open.

  • You can be who you are.  You are relevant.  You have an opportunity to an actual path where God is leading you.  Walk with us – not your fear or a stereotype.

We create a distinct atmosphere.

  • We create an atmosphere where we try to attract those who are timid with things like the bible through our vulnerability showing it is OK to have doubts and disbelief.

We are a connected community.

  • We are not an obligation – this community is real and authentic and people are here out of choice.  We are not a thing to do.  We want to know you.  

Leadership is respected and varied.

  • Leaders don’t have to be older, mature people who have all their stuff together. Anyone can potentially be a leader and should see their gifts and insight valued and nurtured (not just for white male extroverts).

We have an open seeking spirit.

  • Vulnerability in sharing by both women and men. It’s good modeling by those in leadership because it sets a space to be real and to address deep set needs – we are a deep people because of this.

We are devoted to compassion.

  • Our good works are a natural progression from our togetherness

We share.

  • It is not hard to get resources of spiritual direction (informal), counseling, financial help, job connections.

We take action, are ambitious, intentional.

  • We are doers of the word. While other may talk about examples of how you may get involved the overwhelming expectation is that we are people who live through action and action particularly for both one another and those with need.

We expect people to participate.

  • They can get connected to anything (cell, team’s, leadership, etc.), the church is their oyster.

We are committed to dialogue.

  • It is the judge-free zone.  We all pretty openly discuss a lot of topics, personal and otherwise with widely varying opinions sometimes, and no one is upset.  

When you answer the question about your church, what are the answers YOU get? Let’s keep praying for the Holy Spirit to move us into the place the Lord would like us to be.

[Originally published on Circle of Hope’s blog]

Radicals Discerning their Direction

Wednesday night cells at BW

Getting from “here” to “there” is always difficult, especially when it is a group that is going! A healthy process of dialogue not only helps us, as individuals, get somewhere, speaking the truth in love helps the whole church cohere and move together. Discerning our map every year is an ambitious process of engaging people at a deep level of personal responsibility, group discernment and covenant action. We are blessed with covenant members and devoted friends who have personal care for our goals and who create an atmosphere of healthy dialogue.

A basic reason for seeking discernment and making a map.

We need discernment in the middle of fear and oppression.

The wicked flee though no one pursues,
but the righteous are as bold as a lion.

When a country is rebellious, it has many rulers,
but a ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order.

A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.
(Proverbs 28:1-3)

All these proverbs stand on their own, of course. But it is interesting to note how they came to be collected; in this case, I think it is very telling. On the one hand we are dealing with fear in the first proverb. On the other hand we are dealing with oppression in the third. That seems to be the general state of the population in the Philadelphia region – fearful and oppressed. In the middle of that condition is discernment. When wisdom rules, community can flourish; otherwise, we are all our own kings and queens fighting it out.

If the upcoming election can be understood, I think it might be safe to say that the oppressors are promising that we will all be kings and queens and we have nothing to fear. I question their discernment. Watching the candidates work makes it even more important to be an alternative to what they are producing and to learn the ways of life in Jesus. Our approach to discerning our direction every year is all about being that alternative.

Seven reasons for discerning our map the way we do.

1) We map the way we do because we believe the voice of the Spirit is heard in the body of Christ. Direction should not be set in a board room but in our meeting rooms. We either learn discernment or die at the hands of the data. It is not that anyone really wants to Google their lives, but we are being trained to do so – to not think, to not listen to the Spirit, but to listen to the most expert person in the world, virtually. The Apostle Paul was so exasperated with one of his church plantings that he said: “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” (1 Corinthians 6:5). We have to keep listening for God; hearing his voice in the other believers is a crucial way to do that.

Tuesday cells ranking the brainstorm

2) We map the way we do because we need to elevate the dignity of each individual as they presently are, right now. Everyone’s voice has value. Everyone matters and their power should be honored:  “To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).  We think people have the God-given capacity to discern together, as the body, at a very deep level. Everyone has the Spirit of God and they should offer what they have to our common understanding and we should all listen. Whether they are right or wrong, whether we think we should follow their lead or not, listening is the right thing to do and makes us people after God’s own, listening heart.

3) We don’t want to encourage people to merely follow the leader. We want to produce leaders of other people. We are always working out 2 Timothy 2:2. Paul tells his protégé Timothy: “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Every believer is entrusted with the truth about Jesus and inspired by His Spirit, so they are, by nature, an influencer who leads others to know and follow. Our mapping process is another exercise in deepening that capacity. It requires us to resist leaving it up to someone else and taking the luxury to complain about what we aren’t doing.

4) Likewise, we need to build a trust system of partners. The leaders may have good sense, but if the body does not own a common vision, their leadership isn’t going to make much of a difference. Our pastors think of our work as mainly facilitating what God is doing among us. We’re not just trying to get people to do what we want. We all have to own what God is doing, not just the leadership team. And I think that in order to own what we are doing, we need to have a chance to change it. We all have to drive the car at some level. We all need ways that we connect at a level of trust or we will sink into sitting in meetings and consuming church products, fearful and oppressed.

5) Community is our strong suit for evangelism. One of the main problems the people of today have with the church is that we don’t seem to be able to get along. We avoid conflict or have unhealthy conflict. Our discerning process teaches us how to have conflict in a healthy way. To be cells forming congregations in a region-wide network, we have to master loving communication. Creating a network might be one of the weirdest things about us, but it is also one of the most attractive. We have to keep explaining it to our neighbors by how we act. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”(John 13:35). Coming up with the map helps us answer the question: “Still love each other?”

One of the groups among the Thursday cells and their neat list

6) Discerning for the map teaches a basic missional skill— how to help people get peoplefrom here to there. It is tempting to think faith and service just “happen.” But it is, in fact, very hard to get anything done in the world – especially when it is resisting Jesus! Mapping helps us all figure out how to make the most of what we have and to direct our energies where we should make the most difference. We each need to keep growing and changing and so does everyone we know. Mapping helps us answer the question: “What does God want us to do to get where we are called to go?”

7) Discerning for the map teaches a basic conservation skill – how do we develop and maintain the capacity to do what we have the opportunity to do?  Mapping has a “farming” aspect to it. We have to assess how much people power we have to extend our “acreage.” We need to understand what it takes to fulfill the goals we set. We map because we want to make sure that our basic structure — cells and PMs — is still intact and makes sense. We map because goals motivate us to invest what we have achieved in what God has given us to do next.

I think we are pretty successful at discerning. Our mapping meetings last week encouraged me and inspired me! Themes emerged as different groups met each night. Brilliant, spiritual people revealed themselves and shared their gifts. People felt conflicted and threatened and dealt with that. People felt loved and affirmed and celebrated that. It made me think that authentic Christianity had a good chance of surviving in the middle of fear and oppression.

Development

All weekend I talked about development — and I am not just talking about the in-town retreat the Leadership Team held with the discerning group to map out 2011 for Circle of Hope! No, I live in the Philadelphia region and we talk about development all the time: what’s happening in the casino district in Fishtown — the amazing speculation going on from Washington to Wharton in Point Breeze — the big ideas happening in southwest Germantown exemplified by the Kroc Center and the eviction notices given  to the people in the tower at Queen Lane — the changes on 52nd St. with the influx of new home owners pushing out from University City. What’s more: south of Temple is not what it used to be! — the Riverfront Prison site in Camden might get used well! — the South St. bridge reopened! It is exciting.

Development happens. Sometimes it is for the good. Much of the time it is the same old injustice in new clothes. Regardless, the church needs to develop along with it. I was talking to a new friend in the Kimball St. Garden this weekend who said visiting St. Peter’s in Rome was the straw that broke the camel’s back of his faith. He gave it up when he saw that piece of church “development.” I understood. When I was there a few years ago I asked God for an earthquake to take care of what must be the worst piece of advertising for Jesus in history. God becomes a baby to meet us person to person and the church advertises him with an overwhelming building designed to make you feel small and powerless in the presence of God (and the pope)!

In most of Philly’s neighborhoods there are further shrines to the church’s pride and power housing congregations who are trying to figure out how to stay afloat and become useful in their developing neighborhoods. I told the man I was getting to know that he could come see us in our room over a check-cashing store if he ever felt like experiencing an alternative. He said he might show up. But I am not too heartened that Circle of Hope’s big contribution might be to provide a corrective for something done in 1626! We have our own development to consider!

This weekend we were considering our development in our developing region, and it wasn’t that easy. The pastors put out some ideas that seemed to come from the best parts of our discernment process including slight changes to our basic identity statements. We needed a lot of dialogue! Change is not easy! There were two ideas aired, in particular, that must feel like tearing down the Queen Lane public housing tower feels for some people. They want it gone, but they aren’t sure it doesn’t mean something important is going to be lost.

I guess I am like a “developer,” God help me. I don’t need change for change’s sake, but I think things can improve. When it comes to developing Circle of Hope, for instance, I think we should admit that we are diverse in race, class, background and location and stop talking about ourselves as if we are trying to become that. We became that. We can always become more, but we became that. Now let’s keep the heart of who we are and move on to what is next. Personally, I am not going to give up on any aspect of the work of reconciliation until I die. I want to keep overcoming the racist divides of our country (as were easily seen in the last election when Obama got his white backlash, even if no one will admit that), and I will keep being a proactive peacemaker (the need for such was also evident after the election when not one candidate on election eve mentioned the war in Afghanistan as a big deal to them). I think reconciliation is basic Christianity and I am not aspiring to it, I am it. I think we worked reconciliation into our DNA; we have it in our proverbs and mission teams. Let’s not talk about doing it as if it is still in question. Lets be it.

For another less tangible thing, I think we, as Circle of Hope, should admit that we met all our goals for development as an institution and now we should act like we are developed. We are four congregations, nearly 50 cells, four pastors, lead by  20-person leadership team, served by three staff people. We have two profitable thrift stores and a counseling center. We have compassion teams that many people consider radical. We need to get our minds around that and imagine what is next as that new entity. Let’s express ourselves as who we are now and stop dragging ourselves back into some nostalgic small thing. For anyone who just tuned in, we are just about what we were dreaming about becoming when we were a small thing. Let’s have the dreams of what a Circle of Hope that exists now would dream! This requires some maturity, of course. It is easier to just keep doing whatever was happening before. The people getting pushed out of North Philly into the lower Northeast and out of West Philly and South Philly into Southwest are just moving with the flow. They don’t create much flow. A lot of churches in town (like some churches on the street with BW) seem to be holding on as long as they can to what used to be great as the world changes around them. We were not created for that.

I am not up for not developing. Jesus is the source of a renewed imagination. Jesus continually renews our strength so we can face what is, now. I think he finds it exciting to work for redemption in the latest thing that has developed with the latest church he has developed. Let’s keep up.

Lessons in Spiritual Depth from Paul: Wait, worship, listen

I have received a lot of mentoring from the Apostle Paul — from my first real reading of the New Testament as a teenager, I felt a deep kinship with him. My thought was then, and still is, that, “If Paul can do it, so can I.” He is so obviously a real guy, with all his gifts and limitations in action. He has a personality that shows through. And God uses him.

Oldest image of Paul, 4th C., From Catacomb of St. Thekla in Rome

I look at the accounts of Paul in Acts and what he writes in his letters like a story about an action hero. He is such a persuasive teacher and a courageous missionary! He is so dramatic that it is easy to overlook the quieter, interior qualities that are basic to making him so influential.

I have learned a lot from Paul about how to deepen my relationship with God by learning to wait, listening in prayer, and moving with the promptings of the Spirit.  I felt like doing this little study to prove that he really was that kind of spiritual guy. It seems that, for most people who read his letters, Paul is all about principles, morality and preaching. He is primarily a great  example of an evangelist and church planter. But what about the quiet side? Is he ever silent? How does he get his direction? There are some hints about his personal relationship with God in the New Testament record. I want to list some main ones to encourage us all to move with the “regular guy” Paul as we attempt our own expression of our faith in this era of the world.

Waiting

Paul was cooling it in his home town after he escaped Jerusalem. It is important to learn how to wait.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. Acts 11:25-6

After his conversion Paul spent “many days” with the disciples in Damascus. The “scales” coming off his eyes also had to do with unlearning his passionate Jewish activism, and no doubt had to do with a major interior change. It took time. In Galatians he gives a more complete timeline:

But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. Galatians 1:15-18

The timelines in the Bible are hard to put in order, since that is not the interest of the writers. But this at least implies that Paul spent a significant time in the desert after his conversion. He apparently had a sojourn like Jesus, being confronted and purged by God’s Spirit in preparation for his major role in building the kingdom.

Paul had significant times of waiting throughout his ministry and he used them. Many of them were the times he was in prison. He spent two years awaiting trial, at one point.

As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison. Acts 24:25-27

Martin Luther King did well with his imprisonment, too. We may face that ourselves, one day. Until then, we wait in all sorts of other ways – imprisoned in our jobs, or on the Schuylkill. It is good preparation time, if we use it to be with God.

Worshipping

Paul got direction by receiving it from the body as they received it from the Holy Spirit during times of worship and prayer.

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3

If we have worried about our spiritual development at all, so many of us have spent our days interpreting spiritual material and applying the logic we concoct. As a result we often have little idea of what the writers of the Bible were doing to receive the material we are interpreting! They obviously spent a lot of intense time in prayer getting direction for what they were going to do. From the way Paul writes his letters, it might sound like Christians should all be articulate theorists. But he is obviously a lot more than that. His applications are resting on the foundation of his experience of Christ in his body.

Listening

Paul developed the ability, as have so many after him, to listen to the Spirit of God in any number of ways. Somehow the Spirit prevents him from doing one thing and directs him to do another.

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6-10

The boiled-down “science for the masses” we have all learned has made us very suspicious about spiritual promptings and visions. (And Paul tells us to test them well, himself). Combined with the excesses of the Pentecostal movement, so often portrayed in living color on TV, we end up tempted not to listen to the Spirit at all. So our own directability is pretty much nil. Meanwhile Paul is remembering his experiences of revelation as foundational to all he does and says:

I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 2 Corinthians 12:1-5

He had a great experience of hearing from God fourteen years before he was writing, but he was still talking about it. He had regular experiences of being directed that his companions wrote about. I think that teaches me to stop and listen.

God still needs deep people. We have a lot of reasons why we are not developing into deep people. And we really have a lot of reasons why we are not going to follow the spiritual promptings we do receive. But one excuse we should never use is that such depth is beyond us. The wild movement of God’s Spirit is for regular people, like the Apostle Paul.

The Heart of Good Dialogue

“Let the peace that Christ gives control your thinking. You were all called together in one body to have peace. Always be thankful.” Colossians 3:15 (International Childrens Bible)

After something like fifteen hours of intense dialogue this past weekend during the Discerning Retreat, I felt like I needed a silence transfusion. But that need did not diminish my joy over the radical thing I got to do. We were definitely called together in one body – for real, not just in theory. And we had remarkable peace.

Dialogue is not easy. It is easy to talk (or at least think of what you would talk about if you dared to talk); it is harder to listen. It is easier to speak inauthentically– playing a part, following a line of thinking; it is harder to take oneself and others seriously as expressions of God’s Spirit. In this day, it is hard not to succumb to the prevailing thought that “everyone has a right to their own opinion” and merely “agree to disagree,” as if that thought and action were somehow supremely moral.

In Paul’s thinking, I think he would say, “The good news is that everyone has a restored right to God’s word of truth.” And, “For the sake of living in the peace Christ gives I would gladly give up all my so-called rights.”

A partner came up to me after the retreat was over and was so happy that we managed not to fight. It was the first time she had been involved in our discerning process directly. She had never seen a group of believers talk about difficult things with mutual understanding, patience and hope like we did. Another person said a similar thing. She was amazed that we could disagree so well.

I hope they didn’t think we just had a remarkable affection for each other. That is true. But we have to agree on some basics things in order to disagree well — like the scripture that heads this post. We can’t accept what we discern as practical application of our faith unless we do agree on some foundational realities of that faith. As in the words Paul wrote to the Colossians above, we have to agree that the peace of Christ is more important than our latest brainstorm or our latest desire to rise to the surface. We have to agree that we have been called together in one body and that our fears won’t protect that or our brilliance create it. We do need to be alert for what can destroy us, and we do need to passionately exercise our gifts to be the body, but, at the bottom of it, being called together and lead by God is the basis of any discernment we might have.

I have to admit that when I entered the retreat time, I was at peace, but I was not very thankful, yet. I was more anxious about what was going to happen. The pastors ran out of planning time and wished there had been more; we didn’t get our logistics right and ran into last-minute glitches; significant partners were absent or indisposed – there is always something. But during the prayer walk in the neighborhood, about when I was buying old china from a neighbor’s yard sale (which Gwen actually liked, even though it did not match what she already had, as I’d hoped), I was moved with a great feeling of gratitude. It hit me.

I managed to let Jesus rule the situation. I let my joy over being called into the body and having a real one to live in rise to the top. I listened to the hearts of my prayerwalking buddies as they prayed. I admired the burgeoning neighborhood into which God has plopped us. I realized I was astounded.

Maybe always be thankful is even more the essence of discerning dialogue. Conversation with someone who is grateful for what they have been given and grateful for who they have been given to be is a pleasure. Their receptivity to God’s grace makes them the most able discerners. I long to be one of those kind of followers of Jesus.

BEING Built together as living stones: And a lament for the lack

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house… 1 Peter 2:4-5

As we come to our Discerning Retreat We find ourselves in the sometimes-absurd-feeling position of taking the verse above with radical seriousness. Let me rephrase that, we are not just seriously considering being living stones; the event presumes that we are living stones being built into a spiritual house. There is a huge difference between merely aspiring to be something and seeing if it works out, and actually assuming one is something and working it out. It takes some courage to be so presumptuous.

Let me lead us in a lament on why it is hard for many of us to presume we are what Peter is talking about:

free radical and living stones

1) Some of our best potential partners “hover” over the church.

Good people can’t abide denominations; they go parachurch for their mission; they can’t stand relating too long without getting to do exactly what they want. So they hover over the rest of us, dipping in periodically to abscond with what they like and leaving the rest of us to be the church. I compare them to free-radical atoms that cause organisms to deteriorate. They are like high-end shoppers who periodically hold an extravagant fair where they get their goodies; the rest of the time they cast their nets into various groups and scoop up whatever they want to consume and discard the rest.

2) People who were once radical enough to be a member of the “tribe,” no matter what, have a tough time maintaining that once they have children.

It is hard to imagine your child’s needs being met among the living stones when they are in the process of being indoctrinated by the school and their peer group. When your child is having trouble relating or participating, it is hard not to adapt to their leadership.

3) We have quite a few ex-dating, even ex-marriage partners cordoning off sections of the fellowship.

If I am upsetting you right now because I said this, I probably mean you. I feel your pain, but if we organize around you, worry about how your despair is driving you out, or are drawn to see the world in terms of being on your side or not, we are not being constructed; we’re expanding your sense of being destroyed.

4) On the same subject, we have numerous mixed marriages or mixed faux-marriages among us. I mean that people are built together with mates who don’t follow Jesus.

The mates are usually open to faith (at least to their mate having some), and are likely to be nice people. But they often take their mate out of the building materials storehouse. It is hard to be a living stone if you are not really available to be built into the building.

5) Some of the partners really keep their faith in their head.

That’s not all bad – there are intellectual issues to be had. But being built together is physical, emotional and mainly spiritual. We can’t just argue all day. We don’t want to live in a relationship that is like a bad marriage, in which the partners are just out for some kind of justice that matches what they are thinking or meets their demands, instead of being out to build the love of the relationship.

It’s a lament

Don’t take this the wrong way. This piece is kind of a “lament” based on my longing to be all that Peter is talking about – a living stone built into a spiritual house. I am a living stone and I do experience life in the spiritual house. It would have been easy enough to write a psalm of praise about how people are doing the exact opposite of what I have enumerated above. And I could have written a psalm of praise for how people in the conditions enumerated above are dealing with them faithfully. I have plenty of well-founded hope. Besides, the church depends on what Jesus is building. We are being built, Peter says. We, and millions of living stones all over the world, are being built by God into the typically wild array of diverse expressions of grace.

But I like the reality of the stark contrasts that also permeate Peter’s letter.  I think Peter wrote the exhortation I’m riffing on today because he was facing the same kind of stuff we face. People in his day, like in ours, just didn’t get the facts of their new lives in Christ or they didn’t accept them or they wouldn’t/couldn’t live out of them. They had any number of good reasons to not be built together into a spiritual house. We have the reasons our world tempts us to apply, too.

The Discerning Retreat is one of our radical antidotes to all that. It gives us a chance to take Jesus and one another seriously, in hope that we won’t be something in our head, just a theory, or merely a prospect. It calls us to be a people in real time, in love with each other, with the living Lord at the center. The retreat is far from the only thing we do, of course, to live out our lives in Christ. But it is such a good opportunity to come to the Living Stone and be built, as living stones, into a great place for him to live.

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Running the Bases: Revised

We need to know how we know things. This became clear again, lately, as some of my friends needed to make big decisions. They did not have as many resources for discernment as they wished they had! A couple of times we got out the old baseball diamond chart and tried to “run the bases” a few times to figure something out.

bases

The chart offers a way to simplify the process of making decisions — discerning what we need to know. At its most basic level of interpretation the chart is about coming to understand what we consciously know, at this point, about what God is saying to us, and how we might sort that out.

The creation – We start as creatures in God’s creation, with instincts about what is good and bad, safe and dangerous, beautiful and ugly, etc. Some people might call what we do at this base an appreciation of “natural law.” We can know a lot about what God is trying to say by sitting on the beach looking at the ocean. One can read deep things about God by sitting with a leaf for a while.

Note: People or institutions that never get off home plate aren’t in the game much; they tend to think being a creature, interpreting “reality” from their own vantage point is all there is!

The Bible —  The revelation recorded in the Bible is like first base, our elementary, basic teaching about what God says and how to do the word. It is the basis of our tribe’s “lore” — our understanding about life, our tradition, history and ritual. It is the tried and true compendium from the spiritual ancestors validated by the present-day confirmation of the Spirit. Our practical, historical, and accountable understanding of God starts here. The Bible is mother’s milk to spiritual babes; and everyone comes to God as a child.

Note: People or institutions that live on first base might be a bit infantile.

The Body – The Church is like second base; it includes first base and started at home. In the church we have an ongoing dialogue that continues to process the word we have received and to incorporate further revelation. By speaking the truth in love our critical thinking is engaged. We discern-things-through with one another. In this way the body of Christ allows us to grow into more “teenage” thinking. We need a place where we can dare to be someone while still in a secure environment.

Note: People or institutions that stay on second base can end up designed for endless argument, just like teens seem to be.

The Spirit – A deepening person-to-person relationship with God is like getting to third base. We have to consider how God is directly speaking to us. We need to develop confidence that our thoughts and feelings coincide with God’s character and actions. We need to relate to God. We have experiences like Paul meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, or Matthew hearing Jesus call him to follow, or the woman at the well hearing her deepest secrets and needs touched. We long for a daily sense of discernment and direction– a sense that we know and appreciate God for who God is.

Note: People or institutions who camp on third base can be so subjective that their conclusions can ultimately be more about themselves than God.

After “running” we get back to home with a deeper understanding of our place in creation and our mission in the re-creation. Chances are, we will be running the bases again to sort out some new thought or circumstance. We hunger to keep moving with God and keep receiving from God all the gifts of knowledge, wisdom and vision we are given through every “base.”

Obviously, what I’ve said so far is a somewhat superficial idea about the complexity of thinking. It is mainly on a rational level. Lately I have thought I should be considering how to run the bases like an organism that is more than a brain. We listen and learn with our emotions and our new spiritual instincts as well as our minds. So “running the bases” should reflect how we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

The creation – I need to consider how I work as the creature I am. I am a peculiar creation with a way about me that is natural for me. I should honor that and live out of my new self with confidence.

The Bible – Reading the Bible is not just about understanding concepts. The Bible leads us to the basic disciplines of meditation and prayer. I need a collection of disciplines that help my inner being conform to the revelation I read or am taught, so I am saturated with the truth and love that is revealed. I am doing the word, not just hearing it. I am responding to God’s word to me, obeying, developing not just collecting thoughts.

The Body – My place in the body is elemental to my knowledge of God. Here I receive spiritual direction from caring people who know me. Here I test out my gifts and prove my value. From here I launch into mission. In the process of building, I am built. There is no ultimate knowledge outside God’s family.

The Spirit – I have an entire, spiritual side to me that is being discovered. God may lead me through new impulses, through visions. My dreams may come to have deeper meaning. I may receive words of prophecy, even the ability to heal. My daily experience of life has changed, so that everything has meaning. I can learn from every moment, every person, every discourse.

I put out this very basic thinking to encourage anyone who is listening to run the bases a few times today at various levels. Almost any subject can benefit from some Spirit-to-spirit mentalizing: What should I do about my marriage? How should I enter into the meeting at work today? How is God responding to the fear I am feeling? What should I do next?

God bless you as you do some spiritual huffing and puffing around the diamond.

[For a nice treatment of a lot of this, pick up Wilkie and Noreen Au’s The Discerning Heart]