Reflection and Prayers
So…it is indeed my Birthday this Wednesday and I’ll be celebrating it at a Staffordshire conference centre where United Reformed Church ministers will be gathering from tomorrow. Which reminds me of something Ray told me a few years back, when he suggested that the collective noun for ministers should be ‘a manure of ministers’. Spread out wide, they can do a lot of good, but when collected all together, they stink!
Well, fragrant or otherwise, I’m hopeful that it will be a fruitful week and that I’ll perhaps even mark my Birthday with a game or two in the bar. For I do enjoy a Birthday game. Many of you were with me at the golf club a few weeks back when we celebrated Marilyn Leach’s 80th Birthday with lunch, laughter, and a game of ‘Herd Mentality’. For those of you who weren’t there, Herd Mentality is a great family game in which you are awarded points for sharing answers, are invited to moo at slow thinkers, and occasionally are given a cow. I know it sounds bizarre but essentially all you have to do is to offer an answer to some of life’s eternal questions such as ‘what is the best way to cook an egg’; ‘would you rather have toes for fingers or fingers for toes’, and – one that always causes great debate – ‘how many days would have to pass before you wouldn’t eat leftover pizza’? Anyway, for this morning, the killer question for you is – ‘what’s the best type of biscuit’? And instead of just writing your answer, I’m going to give you three minutes in groups to come up with a shared answer. What is the best type of biscuit? Good luck!
[Discussion & feeding back of answers]
I wonder how you came to your group decision. Maybe some of you ferociously debated what ‘best’ meant in the biscuit world…best taste, best nutritional value, best for dunking in a mug of tea, perhaps? Or maybe one of your group had a convincing argument – or just a loud voice – which led to others being won over. Or perhaps you simply didn’t care and so didn’t bother to participate in the process. Coming to a consensus about biscuits can be a tricky thing. So what if we changed the question? What if I asked you to discuss and decide upon…whether we should be taxing the large oil corporations more? How would you get on if I asked you to come to agreement over military aid for Ukraine or – as the US Supreme Court are considering – on a woman’s right to an abortion? And how on Earth do we communally decide whether or not to close a church; when is it right to celebrate Holy Communion; or how to decide which churches get ministers and which don’t…three very real, very hard questions that came up in different meetings I’ve attended over the past week.
Thank goodness, then, that we do not decide upon such things on our own but rather, that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can communally discern the will of God, meaning that we always agree on the big questions facing us and that – unlike in the rest of the world – there’s no such thing as disagreement or even conflict in the Church. Right? No?
No…okay…so things are sadly not that simple! And yet, within the Church – and most especially within our reformed and Baptist traditions – we do believe in communal discernment. We do believe in seeking the mind of Christ, the will of God, together. We believe that the community – be it church committee or council, elders’ or church meeting – the community manifests collective wisdom through the Spirit which leads us to make decisions not based upon personal preference or majority rule but on what we believe God is revealing to us! Our church meetings might be difficult, onerous, occasionally boring even, but they are also acts of great faith.
So, with Castle Square on the cusp of a momentous decision and St. David’s Uniting church imminently facing others, what can be said today about how we engage in communal discernment as disciples of Christ? Well…a couple of things before we hit The Bible…
Firstly, there is an enormous amount of writing when it comes to Christian discernment and because some idiot got us side-tracked by biscuits, we have limited time to really delve deeply into this today so we’ll have to be brief. Secondly, The Bible itself isn’t replete with many healthy examples of communal discernment…which perhaps reminds us of the magnitude of the task and the frailty of human beings! That said, there are some passages which – with the ever-crucial guidance of the Spirit – might give us some pointers to take into account. So let’s turn to the book of Nehemiah – not one we read too frequently – as we hear the opening of the story of a man who wept for Jerusalem and discerned God’s will for its restoration. Quick context…Nehemiah is living in Persia where he and many other Jews have been exiled, whilst a remnant remain in a ransacked Jerusalem…
Reading: Nehemiah 1:1-11
So what might learn about discernment from this passage?
Well, we read that Nehemiah started with questions. “I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem.”
It might sound simple or obvious but I believe that good discernment begins with good questions. It’s all too easy to hear about an issue and jump to a conclusion without taking the time to consider what issues, emotions, and dynamics are at play. Instead, like Nehemiah, we need to approach the topic by asking what is this really about – and what is it not about? What are the experiences, assumptions, beliefs that underpin our responses to it? What else do we need to learn before we can begin to understand the issue? A church member’s obsession about getting a certain colour carpet laid may at first sound ridiculous and infuriating but when we dig a little deeper, when we ask the right questions – when we are faithfully curious we might discover the true attachments, fears, desires that lay behind it and address them rather than fall out about whether God prefers teal to lapis!
Of course, asking good questions is only part of the equation…for good questions demand good listening. We can’t consider ourselves active in the discernment process if are simply waiting for our chance to speak or are distracted by looking up tractors – or whatever else – on our phones. Instead, we need to be focused – attentively listening to what is being said, before summarizing and checking that we’re hearing and understanding correctly.
More than this, active listening means attending to the voices and wisdom of those at the meeting, as well as considering which voices aren’t being heard. Are the same old people holding court and, if so, who else do we need to invite to speak? Are we speaking from a position of power or privilege – and, if so, how can we name that? Are there people in our community who have lived experience which might benefit our discernment…or do we need to seek out thoughts of those worldviews, age groups, genders, sexualities and ethnicities that are not represented? How will hearing their perspectives affect our shared discernment? After all – as the West African proverb suggests – until we hear the lion’s side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
After asking the visitors about their experiences and listening to them, Nehemiah wept. He did not coldly jump to a plan or solution. He did not ignore the pain he heard. Rather, he allowed it to move him. He was empathetic to those suffering and wept with them. Right now, in our churches – in our world – there is much to lament and we must make space for this in our discernment process. We must pay attention to who is hurting in a given situation. To name and identify our hurts before one another and before God. To experience Good Friday, not rush to Easter Sunday.
Moreover, Nehemiah mourns for days. Before a conversation with a king, a journey to Jerusalem, and – eventually – the restoration of the wall, Nehemiah effectively presses pause. I know that I am frequently far too impatient when it comes to problem-solving or developing a plan of action. I also know that my best decisions are usually the ones that I’ve let sit for a while, allowing God’s voice to penetrate the constant chatter that goes on – both with other people and in my own mind. Sometimes this stillness can come from letting a decision rest before we come back to it and take it forward. Other times, it can come from simply taking some time to be silent. To stop the conversation and simply be. This principal was so clearly captured in the film ‘Selma’ which tells the story of Martin Luther King and the 1965 voting right marches in the United States. In one iconic scene, King leads the protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and is urged to continue and face the waiting state troopers when he drops to his knees and all the other protestors follow suit. After a moment of stillness, King then encourages the protestors to turn back, which they duly did. This decision led to criticism from some of the fellow marchers…but ultimately led to a later, larger march across the bridge which was pivotal in securing the Voting Rights Act which guaranteed the right to vote to all African Americans.
Of course, King didn’t just pause passively on that bridge. He prayed. Which brings us to the last and most significant part of the discernment process – that it has to be pervaded by prayer. King on the bridge, Nehemiah in Persia, Jesus in the wilderness, by the lakeside, in the garden of Gethsemane…when we attempt to discern the will of God, we simply have to spend time in prayer. As the Scottish Baptist, Oswald Chambers, once said;
‘God does not exist to answer our prayers, but by our prayers we come to discern the mind of God’.
Perhaps like Nehemiah, our prayers will be accompanied by fasting, confession, and the recollection of scripture. Perhaps, like King, they will be silent. Personally, I lean toward the latter, as silent prayer encourages us to empty our minds of words and ideas and rest in the presence of God with us…but others might prefer other forms of prayer. The important thing is that, whatever shape they take, we allow time to listen with God. For we believe that God is not neutral or ambivalent to our decisions or futures but cares about them and us, whilst, in the person of Jesus, in the movement of the Spirit, in the words of scripture and of Christ’s disciples today, God is self-revealing. So, if we are really mean it when we say ‘Thy will be done’, let us take the time to listen to what that might be.
Through good questions and active listening; through empathy, stillness, and prayer, Nehemiah discerned that God was calling him to return and rebuild. Through good questions and active listening; through empathy, stillness, and prayer, Jesus discerned that God was calling him to the cross. Discernment can lead us to some hard work and difficult places but we do not go there alone. To paraphrase the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton –
‘Even if we may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, we need not fear – for God is ever with us, and God will never leave us to face our perils alone’. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Prayers of Intercession
Let’s spend a moment looking back over the past week…
…let’s notice all that was good, those places where God’s goodness was strewn across our path; for all that we want to give thanks for, in our lives and the life of our world…
(a time of silence)
For the beauty of spring flowers, the hush of twilight, the kindness of the postman, the joy of new beginnings, the sound of laughter, the miracle of light at the flick of a switch…Gracious God, in all that is good and beautiful and life giving we encounter you and we give you thanks.
…and now let’s look again at the past week, because woven in amongst the good stuff will have been events and experiences- in our lives or the lives of others or in the life of our world, that have been difficult and challenging or sad and frightening…and in God’s presence let’s remember them…
(a time of silence)
For the anxiety and fear that often lurks just beneath the surface in our lives and is revealed in outbursts or stubbornness…
For those who suffer in mind, body and spirit: for friends suffering with cancer, with mental ill health, with other ailments; for those waiting for hospital appointments and those who are lonely…
For the news from the Ukraine; for those dispossessed by flood in South Africa; for fearful women in Afghanistan, in the United States and around the world…
For the dying and bereaved…
We pray for trust, peace, justice, mercy, healing and forgiveness…that they may be sown amongst us and that we may make space for them in our lives.
And where we are may be part of your answer to our prayers, give us the courage to speak, to listen, to act, to stand with, to choose life.
God of life and death, of light and shadows, of love beyond measure, who meets us in each other, in our everyday lives, may we be open to the work of your Spirit amongst us, that we and all your children may be free.
These prayers we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our brother and Saviour. Amen.