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Posts Tagged ‘discernment’

Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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Who does the work of the church? Is ministry God’s work or our work?

The biblical book of Joshua can point us to an answer.

In that ancient story, God tells the Israelites to march around the city of Jericho once a day for six days with priests carrying horns and accompanied by a sacred box called the ark. On the seventh day, the Israelites are to march around Jericho seven times, and the priests are to blow the trumpets, and the people are to shout. They do all this, and the walls of Jericho fall, and the Israelite army is victorious.

That part of the story is in chapter 6. In chapter 8 we see a different approach. God tells the Israelites to set an ambush and attack the city of Ai. The Israelites practice some ancient but nonetheless impressive military strategy. One group hides. Another taunts Ai. When Ai responds, the taunting group retreats. Then the hiding group surpries Ai, and Israel gains the victory.

Chapter 6 doesn’t have any human strategy, but chapter 8 does. Sometimes God works with passive people, performing mighty deeds without much human contribution. At other times, God works with active people, performing mighty deeds through human effort.

How can Christians today know when to strategize in cooperating with God and when to let God accomplish the mission through us as passive pawns? This requires prayer, study, and discernment.

I cannot answer the question for every person, for every family, for every organization, or for every congregation. God works in different ways in different places and times and cities and cultures.

But spirituality involves strategy. Sometimes ministry happens without much input from us, and sometimes it happens with careful planning.

I have heard church leaders talk about the need for ministry strategy, and I’ve heard church leaders preach about avoiding strategy and letting the Holy Spirit lead the church. Both sides of the discussion have helpful things to say, but balance is needed. Relying on our own strategic skills to the neglect of the Spirit’s guidance is arrogant, perhaps even idolatrous. Refusing to strategize is negligent. Spirituality needs strategy, and strategy needs spirituality.

Is ministry God’s work or our work? Both. God works through us.

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The people ask Jeremiah to ask God for guidance. They tell the prophet:

Pray that the LORD your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do…. May the LORD be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the LORD your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the LORD our God…

Jeremiah does so and receives a message after waiting ten days. Then he tells the people what God says, and they change their minds and accuse him of lying.

I’m impressed that the people seek God’s guidance in their decisions. That’s something we should always practice in our discernment.

The change of mind is not so impressive, and I pray that our desire to receive divine direction will remain steadfast.

(Day 235: Jeremiah 42-45)

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I’m a fan of intergenerational ministry. The church is a family in which people of various generations join together to worship and work, pray and play. Praise, service, and learning happen best when older and younger Christians collaborate in a spirit of unity. Wiser, more experienced Christians and younger, energetic, sometimes idealistic ones can strengthen and encourage each other.

Faithful living as a community that brings generations together requires effort; it doesn’t happen automatically. We need to prayerfully and strategically organize small groups, service projects, worship gatherings, and other experiences that provide opportunities for intergenerational relationship development.

That intentionality rises from our belief that youth and experience should listen to each other, and Elihu understands that and acts on it (Job 32:6-9):

I am young in years,
   and you are old;
that is why I was fearful,
   not daring to tell you what I know.
I thought, ‘Age should speak;
   advanced years should teach wisdom.’
But it is the spirit in a person,
   the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding.
It is not only the old who are wise,
   not only the aged who understand what is right.

Let’s listen to each other with respect and love, receiving the blessing of discernment from God through our intergenerational conversations.

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Discernment can be an interesting process.

King Ahab asks a bunch of prophets if he should go into battle. They all say he should. That’s what he wants to hear, but his gut tells him he shouldn’t listen to them, so he calls in Prophet Micaiah.

Micaiah says what he thinks the king wants him to say, but the king knows something fishy is going on. Then Micaiah tells him that going into battle will not result in Ahab’s favor.

The king doesn’t like it. He orders Micaiah’s imprisonment and goes off to fight… and dies.

Discernment of God’s will in our lives (and of our lives in God’s will) is a spiritual discipline that can employ several contributors: scripture, history, mentors, reason… God also can work through our intuitions. They can mislead us, but they also can partner with other factors to assist our discernment. We should at least listen.

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You rub a bottle, and a genie pops out and offers to grant you three wishes. What do you request?

You sit on Santa’s lap. He asks if you’ve been naughty or nice. Then he asks what you want for Christmas. How do you answer?

Of course the Bible says nothing about genies that magically make wishes come true or about a Santa who keeps a naughty-nice list, but God acts in a similar way in today’s reading. King Solomon can ask God for one wish, and he requests “a discerning heart.” Readers have interpreted this as wisdom, and First Kings 3 in your Bible may have a heading like this: “Solomon Asks for Wisdom.”

What an honorable wish! What an inspiring story!

God grants Solomon’s wish, and he becomes amazingly wise. Numerous biblical proverbs (wise sayings) are attributed to him.

But Solomon doesn’t always act wisely, and we’ll see that as we continue reading.

Ask for wisdom and trust God to provide it. Seek wisdom through spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, and guidance from discerning mentors in your own life and in history. But don’t assume perfection. Welcome God’s continuing work of transformation in you.

The wisest people discern that they’re not yet perfect but are being perfected by the perfect God.

Mark Parker wrote a related article for college ministers. You can read it by clicking here.

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Faithful advisors are some of life’s most helpful blessings.

In my childhood spiritual formation, my parents were my first advisors. When I entered ministry leadership, godly mentors directed my efforts. As I began graduate studies, wise professors assisted my decisions. When I changed courses to focus on ministry, some of those same teachers shared my journey. A few years later I accepted a challenging opportunity that would combine several of my eclectic interests, and experienced practitioners opened my eyes to a ministry world I had not yet explored at any depth. Now as I search for my next full-time role in God’s work, I appreciate wise advice from my wife, ministry colleagues, former professors, and other friends.

But we need to choose advisors with care and prayer. Not all are helpful, as we see in today’s reading. Amnon listens to unwise counsel from a cousin, and the results are abusive and fatal.

As we seek to follow God’s guidance, human advisors can help us discern. We should avoid advice to seek our own pleasures and should befriend advisers who help us seek God’s will.

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