Discernment - The View From 30,000 Feet

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  Matthew 22:34-40

There are a lot of different understandings of the spiritual discipline of discernment in our culture today:

For some, discernment is something we resort to in our religious debates.  We seek wisdom and truth so we can prevail in the culture wars of the day.  Chapter and verse become a cudgel to wield against our opponent.  Problem is . . . when is the last time you ever won a religious debate?  Fail.

For others, discerning God’s will is tied to discovering our personal fulfillment.  As Joel Osteen has said, “Let go of yesterday. Let today be a new beginning and be the best that you can, and you’ll get to where God wants you to be.” This has a certain appeal, but is it the case?  I can think of plenty of godly men and women who have subverted their private desires for the greater good.  And what does this understanding of discernment make of Jesus’ invitation to take up your cross?  Not much, I think.

Most common is the practice of discernment as troubleshooting a problem or solving.  This is – in fact – when most of us turn to God in prayer; when things just aren’t working out.  Or there’s a fork in the road ahead that we can’t quite navigate.  Or a relationship that’s breaking down.  Who doesn’t want to discern God’s will at this point?

And this is fine, but only if we’re in a crisis.  When we are not in a crisis, when there isn’t something to be fixed, we abandon discernment and handle the day-to-day matters on our own.  And, we lose sight of God.  Which is fine . . . because, “We’ve got this, Lord.”  But is it God’s will to be invited in and out of our life?  Is our spirituality just a crutch for those moments when we’re stumped?  No.

Lastly, there is the “Indiana Jones” understanding of discernment.  It assumes that God’s will is fundamentally inscrutable.  Discovering it is a journey both perilous and uncertain.  It is a complex puzzle with many, many complicated parts.  And everyone’s path is unique and different.  Many people never even get started on the quest, let alone accomplish it.

At this point you might want to throw up your hands in despair.  But don’t do it.  The will of God is not inscrutable.  It is not a matter of theological expertise or even self-actualization.  The will of God is simple and clear.  It’s in black and white.  It has two fundamental principles.

Are you ready?

1.     You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and

2.     You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

And that’s it.

Some will complain that this is too broad, too general.  How is this going to help me decide whether to take a new position and relocate my family or stay in place in a job with less responsibility and fewer chances for advancement?  What college should I attend?  When should I retire?  How do the commandments to love God and others inform these decisions?

It could inform just about every decision we make.  It calls us to look at everything we consume, purchase, labor, and hope for with a common set of questions:  How is this going to help me fall in love with God more deeply and how is this going to turn me into God’s love for others?  It tells us that every excruciating dilemma and each mundane moment is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in divine providence and grace.  Each day is embedded with these opportunities, great and small.

Granted, there are other aspects of spiritual discernment that we will rely upon:  scripture, prayer, conversations with trusted friends and mentors, meditation, etc.  The two great commandments are clear, though, about what fruit our discernment should produce:  More love of God and others.  If that isn’t happening, there’s something wrong in the process.

Which brings me to the dilemma that presents itself to the United Methodist Church.  The Council of Bishops has produced a report that contains three different possible outcomes in regards to our denomination’s stance on homosexuality.  The key issues are whether the church should ordain practicing homosexuals and whether clergy should be allowed to perform homosexual marriages. 

Our Council has brought forward three different possible paths the United Methodist Church could choose to take at a called General Conference in February 2019.  The full report is not out yet; it has been delayed.  But you can read a sketch of each proposal in this press release: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/bishops-uphold-values-of-mission-unity-space-contextuality-in-interim-repor

Since I cannot read the full report until July 30, I will refrain from any commentary except to say this:  Whether a more conservative proposal is adopted or whether the General Conference supports a more progressive position, the same task lies before us as a United Methodist Congregation.  The Two Commandments ask us this:  How can fall in love with God more deeply AND how can we love the LGBTQ community?  How can we so embody God’s love for them that it brings glory to God and the Good News of Jesus to more and more of humanity? 

The question is not whether or not we will become a “gay-friendly” congregation.  I hope we do not.  In fact, I don’t believe God is “gay-friendly.”  Such a phrase is demeaning and obnoxious.  God is not merely “friendly” to gays or any other people-group, for that matter.  God loves them deeply.  Just as God loves heterosexuals.  Same love, same passion.  Same desire to redeem and reconcile.  We are ALL objects of divine mercy.  No more, no less. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, "Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will."  While sin is not a trifling matter, is it not sinful for us to give up on our neighbors and too easily consign them to hell?  What would have happened to us Gentiles if God had not included us and redeemed us?  What would have happened to us if we had not received the message from Apostles and countless evangelists?

Regardless of what happens at General Conference, we cannot allow ourselves to be so caught up in the politics of this culture war that we forget to love.   Or that we love less.  Or – even worse – we decide who is worthy and unworthy of God’s love.

~ Pastor Bruce Jones

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