|Liturgy by TLW|
“Your Will Be Done”
Does Our Language & Practice Follow Our Prayer?
By the Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
This article appeared in Lutheran Partners magazine, September/October 2006, Volume 22, Number5
We talk a lot about discernment in the church. We talk a lot about doing God’s will and following God’s lead. Every utterance of the frequently said Lord’s Prayer asks for this: “Your will be done.”
But do our church practice and our language actually follow our prayer? The prayer presumes a life active in discerning God’s will, but have we as leaders taught discernment and lived it out as congregations?
The monthly meeting of the Church Council begins. Or a committee. Or a congregational meeting. We bow our heads and together invoke God’s presence, wisdom and guidance. The “Amen” said by all signals the end of the spiritual part and the beginning of business, pretty much done like business anywhere: receiving information, weighing decisions, and asking all around “what do you think?” In the end, votes are taken based upon our best thinking, individual preference and Roberts Rules of Order, which informs us that “the majority rules.”
But our theology says that God rules. And the promise is that there is more available to us than personal preference or our best thinking. Yet after the opening Amen, was that actually sought during the meeting? Was the question ever asked, “Where do you sense God is leading?” or “What do you hear the Spirit saying?”
What if our business meetings and our language actually followed our prayer in intentional ways? Surely asking “what do you hear the Spirit saying” is a far different question than “what do you think.”
THE CHURCH IN ACTS
Consider the church in the book of Acts. At every stage of development, the Spirit’s guidance was not only requested through prayer, it was actively sought in practice. In Acts 1, when it was time to fill the vacancy left by Judas among the Twelve Apostles, the disciples all prayed, “Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry...” (Acts 1.25-26). It was a prayer of discernment.
In Acts 6, when it was time to expand the ministry of the local church in Jerusalem, the leaders called the membership together and asked them to nominate seven men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” for this new task of ministry. And when the seven were chosen, the Apostles then prayed and laid hands upon them. The seeking of candidates “full of the Spirit” was a seeking of the Spirit’s leading and calling, and seeking of God’s will, not just through prayer, but through a complete process. It was a process of discernment. (Acts 6.1-6)
Throughout Acts, at every point of development of the new Christian Church, the Spirit was there doing the leading with the church members seeking and following the Spirit’s bidding. The Spirit led Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch to interpret God’s word and baptize him (Acts 8.29). The Spirit led Paul and his companions to each and every city of his missionary journeys, even forbidding entry to some (Acts 19.21; 16.6-7).
Even at a crucial point in the development of the Church, a point of difficulty and controversy when the earliest leaders and members had thought that God had only given salvation to the children of Israel, it was the Spirit who made it known to them through a careful process of examination of evidence and conversations and deliberations and reports that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11.1-18). This led to further discoveries of God’s will for the Gentiles that did not require their observance of Jewish laws regarding food and circumcision (Acts 15). A decision by church leaders was made about this and a report of that decision sent to Gentile Christians in Antioch that stated very clearly how that decision was reached: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials...” (Acts 15.28).
The Church lived its life as a life of discernment. And as a result, “Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the church increased in numbers” (Acts 9.31).
How did the Spirit lead? How was God’s will known? From Acts we see the Spirit coming to individuals (11.12) and to groups (2.1-4; 21.4). In Acts, the Spirit comes during worship and fasting (13.2), during prayer (10.9-16), in answered prayer (10.31), during the preaching of God’s word (10.44), at baptism (19.1-6), in the laying of hands (8.14-17), in visions (9.10-12; 10.3-6), as a voice heard (8.29; 10.19), as an insight (11.28), as a matter of reading the signs and interpreting events (11.1-18; 16.6-7; 20.22-23), and as stated above, within group processes of deliberation and conversation (Acts 11 and 15).
THE CHURCH TODAY
As it was for the church of the first century, so it is for the church today. We all know in our hearts that seeking and finding God’s will is the best possible thing that can happen to us. But how many of those business meetings described earlier actually conclude with decisions that can begin, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...”? And yet, I believe the Lord calls us to do just that. How?
1. By being intentionally aware that the work of the church, including the business of the church, is about discerning God’s will.
2. By being intentionally aware of the Spirit’s presence in our reporting, in our deliberations, in our conversations, and in our decision making processes, and verbalizing that presence.
3. By frequently calling members beyond their individual wisdom and preference to the place where they are most Christian as those who are led by the Spirit – not asking, “what do you think,” but rather asking, “what do you hear the Spirit saying” and “where do you sense God is leading us.”
4. By actively teaching our members to listen for the Spirit’s promptings and how to read the signs of the Spirit in our lives.
5. By recognizing that not all voices that we hear are the voices of God, and working to discern the authentic and lasting from the false and fleeting.
6. By trusting in God’s leading enough to shed individual desires and agendas.
7. By seeking decisions and directions that are filled with faith, hope and love for God and neighbor through questions such as:
Is our chosen 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?
Is it too light because of human show or novelty?
Is its merit lessened by personal self-seeking? (John Cassian, 4th c)
Is it filled with faith, hope, love?
Does it make you feel in synch with God?
Does it make you feel grounded, alive and awake, awed, grateful?
(Ignatius of Loyola, 16th c.)
8. By testing our decisions to discern whether they are filled with consolation that leads toward God or filled with desolation that leads away from God.
The call to actively be a discerning church is nothing less than a constant call to each and every member to function on a level that is higher than that of the rest of the world. Business meetings in the church are not the same as business meetings in the world. The business of the church IS discernment.
At the same time, I am convinced that Christians are ready to answer that higher call. They are ready to go to that place where they are truly listening for the Spirit’s promptings and reading the signs. But they need to be invited there. They need to be reminded that they are spiritual people doing the Spirit’s work. Our language and our practice must match our prayer to God: “Your will be done.”
Then we will indeed be able to say, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” and our ministries will truly be blessed by the Spirit’s leading in ways that I believe we have yet to tap.
For more on discernment and group processes of discernment, click the Lectures link above.