Today’s lesson asks learners to consider how Samuel’s discernment of God’s call on him informs how we, in present day, discern God’s call. This is an important topic! How we hear, understand and interpret the voice of God will determine how we make choices big and small, treat our neighbors and bear witness to God. So, getting discernment right is critical. In 2014, the church went through a brief discernment exercise in order to hear God’s voice and know God’s longings for our church’s worship services. I wrote a discernment guide each class used. In advance of this Sunday’s lesson, I think it is important to take a look at an excerpt of that guide.
What is Discernment?
In its simplest form, spiritual discernment is the choosing between two perceived good options, through the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit. Discernment shifts the question, however, from what we personally want, wish, or think to God’s yearning or longing for our lives within the particular question. Discernment, then, is a discipline. It does not come naturally to we who live in a sin-sick world. While we are a redeemed people, the culture in which we live is constantly telling us through numerous modes to put our personal wishes and desires first. Put another way, we have been taught that we indeed are the captain of our ship; that we are right!
The Biblical witness tells us otherwise. In fact, it reminds us that we often are wrong. Stories throughout the Bible reveal that God has a plan for creation but it also shows the disastrous results of what happens when God’s people follow their own desires and will instead of God’s. Following God’s desire for us requires what Paul called “dying to yourself.” Giving up control and being led to places and situations that we may not choose alone. This is why following the path of Jesus seems so unattractive to a culture that believes it knows best.
But Jesus’ witness and Paul’s testimony actually proves a paradox about life; that giving up control – this dying – is actually finding life, for the first time! (Philippians 2; Galatians 2) So we must admit that what we are embarking on is neither natural for us nor easy. It takes practice. And it is not a goal we can ever fully achieve. Rather, it’s an exercise that works particular spiritual muscles. If we stop, the muscles atrophy and become weak.
In seeking spiritual discernment, the first question is “who is in charge?” and the second is “how do I know what God wants me to do?” Closely following both questions is the question “how do I recognize God’s voice above my own voice, simply echoing back my own desires?”
Since spiritual discernment requires relinquishing control, it is important that we do not sabotage the process by bringing our agendas or desires to the table. (Again, this is not an easy process!) If we believe God is in control and we are to find abundant life by being obedient, then we have to become “indifferent” to the outcome we seek. This is far from an uncaring attitude but rather another way of stating that we truly want to make God’s desire our desire. Therefore, a key term to keep with you throughout the discernment process is an attitude and posture of “holy indifference.”
Discernment is an art, not a science. It is about finding God’s yearning for the direction of each of our lives individually, and the direction of our congregation, corporately. It is not a once-and-for-all answer to our questions but a continual seeking for God’s longing as we accept the invitation to live into the abundance God so freely gives us.¹
So spiritual discernment can be compared to a process or a journey. It is not linear – it doesn’t follow a step one, step two, step three format. While this guide will give you the tools and practices to listen for God’s longing for your life, it ultimately is about cultivating a relationship, which requires give-and-take.
Relationships that are intimate and successful are those that cultivate trust and practice listening. These are critical in the spiritual discernment process. God desires a relationship with each of us. We have to trust that God, through the Holy Spirit, desires to be known. Through the practices laid out in this guide, we have to learn to be in tune with God’s voice. This means we must practice the discipline of listening. Once again, in our culture, listening to one another, much less God, is a challenge that requires much practice. It’s the emptying of our own noise and the noise around us so we can be available to the movement of something that is both otherworldly and at the same time very close.
Knowing God’s longing for us throughout our life becomes clearer as we continue to practice holy indifference, trust in God, and in listening to God’s spirit through prayer, study, silence, spiritual friendships, worship, and service to others. Eventually, as we continue these practices, spiritual discernment becomes a way of life.
The story of Samuel’s call is both straightforward and difficult. The narrative is simple to follow – God calls Samuel three times but Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice. It is not until Eli recognizes God’s work in Samuel’s confusion that Eli helps direct Samuel’s ears.
Application for today’s lesson is important:
How do you recognize and trust the voice of God?
How do you recognize and scrutinize your own voice?
Who is in charge? Is it God or you?
Eli’s sons put themselves in charge of the temple rituals, instead of trusting God. God refuses to work in people who put their interests ahead of God’s. Like Eli’s sons, they will miss out on the blessing of God working through them to heal the world.
Who is an Eli in your life – someone who recognizes the voice of God and points you in the direction where you can hear it, no matter the consequences of the message?
Answers don’t come quick or easy when an individual or group sets out to discern the voice of God. But it is the only way to test our own bias and the pull of the fallen world against the longings of God. Often, it is in the process or journey of discernment that growth happens. I pray that your group hears this hard but important truth.
Monday is the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. MLK founded his movement of nonviolent resistance on the witness of Christ and his faith that God stands with weak, the marginalized, the poor and the hungry. In order to stand in non-violent protest, in order to love their enemies, in order to not strike back, the beloved community that Dr. King helped form had to practice. They practiced getting shouted at, punched, attacked. And they practiced not striking back. They also practiced looking their attacker in the eye, what they believed would be a disarming reaction to their attack. They did this because, like Jesus, they believed even their enemies were children of God and that they had the capacity for good. The discipline to behave in this way, to radially love your enemies is not a simple choice. In order to say yes to such a call, it takes a discerning heart. May we cultivate discerning hearts as we at HRBC create God’s beloved community here.
I’ve share this before, but kids president does a great job honoring MLK: Watch and share his video here:
This week’s review of Feasting on the Word material:
Thinking theologically about chaos and order in Genesis 1
Encouragement for using small group discussions
An online resource for crashing waves
How do we explain chaos we experience in our lives, see in others’ lives or see in our world, today? In the same way, how do we explain the amazing order we find in creation and in our world? Our bodies are amazing examples of order. Also, if the earth’s orbit or axis varied just slightly, the earth wouldn’t be able to sustain life. We see incredible examples of order and chaos around us. So, how do we explain it? This question is one of the chief theological questions that all religions deal with and one that God, as made known to us in the Bible, doesn’t shy away from. God answers these pressing questions right at the beginning with the opening line:
“In the beginning, God…”
Before we can attempt to explain order and chaos, we have to start with our belief that before all of this, there was God. God brought life and order out of chaos and God called it good. The account of this process of bringing order out of chaos in Genesis 1 gives some detail to how God did this. The author describes God working over a period of days and creating the world through God’s voice. God speaks and there is life. We aren’t given any more detail than this. So, the scientific mind in each of us will be left unsatisfied with such scant detail. The point of Genesis 1 is not for God to let us in on the specifics of God’s creative work but to simply yet confidently state that it is God who did the creating. And also to point out that God invites his creation – men and women – into the creative process. We too are given the ability to create.
In Genesis 1, God creates humankind in God’s image. In some way, we resemble God. The ability to order and create are a couple of these attributes that resemble God. God gave humans the authority to rule over the rest of creation and to use his creation to continue to create. The theological implications of this belief leads us to ask how we have used our creativity and ability to rule and order since. Are we creative in relationship with God and in obedient faith in God? Or do we strike out on our own, distrusting God and believing that we can truly be in charge, alone? This is the outcome of the fall. Believing the serpent’s lie, that God did not have our best interest in mind, humans bought into the notion that they could order their own lives outside of God. Ironically, this re-introduced chaos into the world. Thus, we live with the tension of beauty and order in creation alongside chaos that sin introduced.
The author of the lesson refers to the Genesis account of creation as having been written during the days of the Babylonian exile. Many scholars, based on textual and archeological research, believe that much of the Old Testament came to its form during and after the Babylonian Exile. This is the first time that this culture, with its oral tradition, had to face the reality that being carried into a different culture may necessitate a written account of its history and how God has moved among them. Not that everything was written down at the same time. There are also stories of Hilkiah finding the book of the law in the temple while it was undergoing renovations (2 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 34). This is just prior to exile. There is a sense that the King Josiah and the people were not familiar nor did they obey the law that they found in the temple. This may imply that the reason they were under siege from foreign nations was their disregard of the law.
No matter when the creation story was recorded, the Babylonian exile is a huge moment in Israel’s history. It was a time of national defeat and humiliation. It was a time when God’s order didn’t hold and was understood as punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness, their desire to follow their own desires instead of God’s. Remembering the creation story – that God brought order out of chaos – must have given the people facing life in a foreign land hope. God could overcome chaos once more.
How does faith in God’s creative work then and now bring us hope in the present, when things feel out of order, uncertain, even scary?
What is significant about water in the Genesis story? As the lesson mentions, the gospel lesson for this week is found in Mark 1:4-11, the story of Jesus’ baptism. What role does water play in the gospel lesson? How does our baptism reflect a change in our lives – from chaos without God to order and purpose under God? Note that God affirms both creation and Jesus’ baptism as being good.
Our new material employs a lot of small group discussion. How often does your class work in small groups? Small group work may initially be uncomfortable for some. Instead of listening to others, small group discussion invites everyone to contribute. For introverts, this can be much easier than contributing in a large group setting. It also keeps one or two folks from always dominating the conversation. Some of the best insight can come from those who don’t normally contribute. Small group discussions allow everyone to be heard. After small group discussions, invite each group to report back to the larger group. You will multiply your insight and wisdom for the collective group by using this strategy! Even small classes can split into small groups of two or three per group. Just be sure to give specific instructions and have the discussion questions available for each group.
This week’s lesson suggests using ocean sounds to direct the class’ attention to God’s creative work. For those who have access to a laptop or smart phone, I’ve found a good YouTube channel that plays ocean waves crashing. Look it up and use it during your intro!
Also, be aware that you will need to sign on to our open wifi at church. The password is: John3:17. This simply keeps people off our wifi who don’t need to use it, thus slowing down the connection for those who do need it. Hope you find your connection speeding up!