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Discerning Godís Will:

A Group Spiritual Process

Used at All Saints, Port Orange, FL, Jan. 11, 2003

 

By The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

 

14 January 2003

 

††††† We have all learned since our beginnings in the faith that discerning Godís will is an important task for us.Regularly, if not daily, we pray our Lordís Prayer, ďYour kingdom come, your will be done.ĒWe hear Jesusí words in the Garden of Gethsemane, ďNot my will, but yours be doneĒ (Mt. 26.39).

††††† For our work in church, that has meant prayer in worship, prayer in meetings and individual prayer while we engage the ďusualĒ order of business or research possibilities for our future in the ďusual waysĒ:reading books, going to workshops, engaging consultants, putting information together, holding discussions and making proposals.

††††† Recently one of our congregations, All Saints Lutheran Church in Port Orange, Florida, decided after doing all of these, to add one more element:engage the whole congregation in an intentional discernment process over a whole day in an attempt to seek Godís guidance and inspiration.

††††† Spiritually speaking, seeking direction is a matter of seeking and understanding call, whether for individuals or churches. And although individual prayer and group meetings are important, discerning Godís will together is not something I had seen as a part of the ďusualĒ approach.Yet why not?

††††† Having been engaged by All Saints as a consultant, I offered to develop and lead them through a day of ďDiscerning Godís Will.ĒIt seemed good to them, and so we scheduled the day for a Saturday in January.

††††† What resulted was one of the most profound witnesses to Godís presence and leading that I had seen in my entire ministry.After sharing this with our Bishop Edward Benoway, he encouraged me to write it up and share it with you

 

A DAY OF DISCERNING GODíS WILL

††††† The day itself went like this.

††††† We gathered in the sanctuary, the place most keenly identified as the place of Godís presence.The Paschal Candle was lighted and remained lit all day.

††††† Those gathered were told that this was a day for listening, as opposed to discussing or debating.Opinions and egos were encouraged to be left at the door in order to be open to Godís leading, an important step within the discernment process.

††††† Then we worshiped, inviting God into our presence.We sang, and then there was silence.We read Psalms responsively and prayed after each; then there was silence.We heard the parable of the sower, and there was silence.We sang again and prayed together a prayer for discernment that the whole congregation had been instructed to pray all week.

††††† Then we moved into learning the basics of discernment.Discernment is spiritually defined as distinguishing the voice of God from the other voices that can influence us (our egos, the ways of the world, evil).We can see discernment at work in the very first church in the book of Acts, which sought the Spiritís leading for each decision.

††††† Discernment occurs within the faith relationship that exists between God and the individual and/or church, and is therefore something that occurs within the context of commitment:Godís commitment to us and our commitment to God.

††††† That means that discerning Godís will isnít just seeking direction.It is being in a right relationship with the God we love.It is this faith relationship that gives us the ability to act upon what is discerned with courage and trust and hope.It also gives us the patience necessary to be loving of others and follow in Godís good time.

††††† Participants in the day had been asked to bring bibles, so we looked at several stories that witness to individuals and groups discerning Godís will.What we learned there was that God is self-disclosing and wishes his will to be known, and that his will can be known because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, given at our baptisms.

 

THE HOW OF DISCERNMENT

††††† After a break, we learned the how of discernment, as informed by many spiritual sages of the past and present.Although there are many different renderings of stages or steps to discernment, we identified some primary ones:

††††† 1. Identifying the focus for discernment.

††††† 2. Having a guiding principle for the process, such as a verse of scripture or mission or vision statement.

††††† 3. Shedding egos and personal agendas in trust and faith in order to be open to Godís will, which includes asking if we are truly ready to follow where God leads.

††††† 4. Rooting ourselves in scripture and tradition as it applies to the identified focus for discernment (i.e., What scripture applies to this path? How does our tradition and history inform us?).

††††† 5. Intentional listening, not only to God, but to voices of all in the discerning community, as well as to those who might be affected by any decision or path.(This is the place where the ďusualĒ methods of gathering information, conducting forums, interviewing people, etc. occur.)

††††† 6. Exploring to see if the options that arise are the only options available, which means being open to the Spiritís creative surprises.

††††† 7. Improving by checking to see if the options that arise are the best that they can be.

††††† 8. Testing the path or paths presented:Which seem from God, which from human ego, which from evil?Again, different methods for testing are offered by the spiritual sages of the centuries.Here are two:

††††† From John Cassian (4th c.):Is this path filled with what is good for all?Is it heavy with faith and trust in God? Is it genuine in the feelings that underlie it?Or is it too light because of human show or novelty?Is its merit lessened by personal self-seeking?

††††† From Ignatius of Loyola (16th c.):In this path, is there a sense of peace and movement toward God (consolation)?Or is there a sense of dis-ease and movement away from God (desolation)?

††††† 9. Coming to closure by moving toward a decision and testing for consensus.

††††† Such a process does not usually happen in one day, nor do the steps need to happen in rigid order.Progress may be from one to another, then back to a previous step before moving forward again.Clearly the listening stage can involve days, weeks and months of information gathering.But as this is done, spiritually exploring and improving can be done.So also the tests of Cassian and Ignatius can be applied within any business meeting.The chair need only remind people that they are the people of God called to seek and do Godís will, and the proceed with asking the time-honored spiritual questions.

 

BIBLE STUDY, MEDITATION

††††† After the how of discernment was defined, we engaged in bible study on Godís will and Godís call.

††††† Following lunch, we entered into about 20 minutes of guided meditation to meet with Jesus, share our concerns and anxieties and release them to him, and then ask him to lead us to the place of his choosing.

††††† Reports of individual experiences during the guided meditation followed in a powerful way. While each person reported different experiences, all the experiences were vivid and rich and of profound personal significance.After only a few reports, links between the experiences could be identified.Common themes developed.We didnít always discern their meaning, but the themes were clear.Ideas emerged that had never come up before.

††††† We charted the links, the ideas and the common themes.Then we expanded the reporting:had anyone heard a word from the Lord at any other time during the day? One person reported an insight that had come to her during worship, and the insight fit into one of the common themes.

††††† The how of the discernment process, previously learned, was now applied to a proposal before the All Saints congregation.Exploring, improving and spiritual testing were applied to it, as detailed above.

††††† It was necessary on occasion to remind attendees that the task was to be open to the Spiritís leading and not lapse into debate about direction.Yet in the end, several insights developed about the proposal that were conveyed to the congregation the next day.

††††† The day closed with a prayer circle and instructions to continue to pray and seek the Lordís guidance for the congregational meeting the next day.

 

ďITíS A NEW DAYĒ

††††† Does such a method of group discernment have a place within our churches?I believe the Spirit is begging us to call upon him for just this task.God is there for the asking.God is there for the leading.

††††† My witness of the day at All Saints had a profound impact upon me personally, and it was clear that the same had happened for the people there Ė even those who had NOT attended.The congregational meeting, which had been anticipated to be a rough one, was orderly and peaceful and filled with people truly seeking Godís direction.A bold proposal that had been worried about by leaders passed nearly unanimously.

††††† ďItís a new day,Ē was Pastor Paul Summerís conclusion afterward.

††††† God is there to assist us in power and love if we but call upon him.I therefore commend this process to you with Godís blessing.Be prepared for the power that comes from tapping into God:

††††† ďIn the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.ĒActs 2.17

____________

 

††††† Sermon Ė The link to the sermon that I preached in this congregation about the day on the Baptism of Our Lord.

††††† Does God Speak Anymore? Ė Another sermon preached before a Sunday version of the Workshop in June of 2004.

 

††††† I am available to lead this discernment process in your church.Click on the email link in the header above.