Proverbs 3:5-7; James 1:5; Matthew 18:19-20
Perhaps you have heard the adage, “Only believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.” While we don’t want to go through life as cynical skeptics, there is truth to the idea that looks can be deceiving.
On my latest vacation, my photo project was looking at things up very close. I looked closely at wild flowers, Irises, Skunk Cabbage, milk weed, mushrooms, daisies, tree stumps, bark – and I had some amazing discoveries. They are not what they look like at first glance! Milkweed tufts burst out of something that looks like the onion domes on Eastern Orthodox Churches. A bank of purple turned out to be tiny blooms like stretched kites with yellow balls bouncing like antennae over them. When you take a close-up of a flower, there are almost always bugs in the picture, often unnoticed until I review the pictures. Appearances can be deceiving. These tiny beauties are crafted with great detail, every little leaf, petal and stem doing their jobs. They are busy! Hard at work! All of which is easy to ignore until you go in close.
Several weeks ago we looked at John 16, where Jesus introduced the disciples to the Spirit of Truth, the one who would lead us into all truth, the one who would take from the Creator and from Jesus and tell us about it. Paul also describes two of the spiritual gifts – one knowledge and one discernment. The coffeehouse service asked us to discuss discernment. So, today, here we go.
One observation about discernment is the truth that appearances can be deceiving. Our culture can be full of truths which say: “Follow me! Follow me!” Back in my youth ministry days, we did an activity to illustrate this. Kim and I took the youth for a walk around the campus. We gave them strict instructions to follow, to pay attention to where we were going. We were on a very important treasure hunt, and we had to pay attention, not get off the path. Along the way, Kim’s boyfriend, who they all knew, stepped out of the chapel with a plate of cookies, just when Kim and I were a step ahead and out of the line of sight of the chapel door. They all made a bee-line to the beckoning friend. Cookies, perhaps they thought, had to be the treasure they were seeking. And even if they weren’t, it was worth breaking the rules! Then they got the second surprise – the cookies were made with salt instead of sugar! It was hilarious! And we had soooo much to talk about for lessons. Looks can be deceiving.
How many trays of cookies do we encounter in our lives? Offered with good hospitable intentions. But what we don’t know is the giftee is a diabetic, or allergic, or eats only Kosher. So often, things are not as they appear on the surface and we have to go in a little closer.
To be a little more serious, how many times have we overheard part of a conversation, and drawn an unwarranted conclusion without the benefit of “the rest of the story?” And then, when we pass it on, we can destroy a surprise or a reputation. Sometimes we can mistake someone’s bad day or scowled face as anger or a vendetta against us. We may think we know the circumstances or character of someone’s life based on partial “evidence.” So many times, it is just hard to know. In the end, what we thought we saw, heard, and knew turns out to be different from the reality.
Jesus warned, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). The Torah had a similar admonition: “Judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev. 19:15). Proverbs 18:13 warns, “One who gives an answer before hearing, gets trapped in folly and shame.”
Oh, how we need discernment today! But what is discernment? In Greek it is a form of the verb, κρίνω (kreeˈ-no) meaning to examine or judge closely, to separate, investigate, question, or examine. Discernment is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between and recognize the moral implications of situations and courses of action. Discernment involves distinguishing the right from the wrong, the primary from the secondary, what is essential from what is trivial, the good, the better, and the best. The apostle Paul speaks to our need to discern when it comes to questionable things in I Corinthians 10:23-24: All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.
Discernment is required to apply the rules fairly, to distinguish between situations and persons and to do the right thing. Discernment notices the nuances needed to make a good choice or set a holy direction. Discerning people pick up on subtle traits and are good judges of quality — they’re the ones who can tell if the cupcakes are homemade from the finest ingredients or totally from a box mix.
The Hebrew scriptures probably have discernment in mind when they speak of wisdom. James, who strongly identified as a Jewish follower of his brother Jesus, picks this up in the verse we read of his letter: If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.
Discernment is a gift from God. So, how do we find this great gift? I think this is what the coffeehouse community was asking when they wanted to talk about discernment. Living in Post-Christian America, we are constantly bombarded by powerful influences such as the media, peer pressure, social trends, political campaigns, heart-rending causes. How do we discern the way of Jesus in all this noise?
Let me suggest a few themes of Scripture which help.
1. First and foremost, spend time with God. Just as you can’t know what the stranger loves on her pancakes, unless you spend time with her, you can’t know what God loves without spending time with God. It starts with reading the Bible. You can get it in an audible version and listen to it. Read 3 chapters a day and you will be done in a year. It takes just 70 hours and 40 minutes to read the Bible through “at pulpit rate,” aloud! It takes only 52 hours and 20 minutes to read the Old Testament, and just 18 hours and 20 minutes to read the New Testament. Back when I was commuting an hour each way, then, it took me 35 trips, or only 7 weeks to listen to the whole thing! So, what I am saying is that it is not an impossible task. You may be bored in a few parts, but there are more delightful surprises than boring parts! Become a lover of truth!
God gave us the Bible as the primary avenue to get to know God’s own self. But there is more. Spend time with God. Pray, meditate. Richard Rohr encouraged us to do this in his newsletter this week: We truly know only that which we love. When we stand back analyzing and coolly calculating, we will never really know anything at a deep level. I cannot prove to you with any kind of logic or philosophy that God speaks to us. But I invite you to step out, trust, and listen. Say, “Love, if you are in fact Love, then show yourself in my life and speak to my heart.” [https://cac.org/prophets-part-one-weekly-summary-2019-07-06/]
When I say, spend time with God, this is what I mean. Get to know what God’s voice sounds like. It takes a lifetime. And still, we don’t hear well sometimes.
So that brings us to the second tool of discernment: Community. Jesus said that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he would be there. Judaism required the testimony of three witnesses. We need each other to find the way. We all have different experiences, different gifts, and different filters. When we put all these perspectives and gifts together, Jesus is there and we are much more likely to find his Way.
Presbyterians have this built into everything we do. We require that clergy be educated to teach us, but it is the responsibility of the elders gathered to guide the way, to make decisions for the direction of the church. Every ministry has a committee. We work by groups. While that may be cumbersome sometimes, it is the way we are convinced that we hear God’s voice. Gathered.
Third, be humble. This is a difficult one for western Christians. We are steeped in the culture of ego strength. Be a super hero. Stand in your super hero stance before you go to work, so you can conquer the world. Just do it! You are the best! …But where there is pride, deception is sure to follow! In order to discern the will of God, we must become quiet, calm and listen. We may have to let go of our answers, hold them in open palms.
And the way forward may not be our idea, or our “thing.” Put God’s way above your own desires. In humility regard others as better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3). What are the greatest laws, according to Jesus? Love God and love your neighbor. Keep your focus on what is central and let what is personal desire take second place.
For today, one more thing, which again we Westerners are not very good at. Listen for the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. We must learn never to over-ride this “still small voice.” This may be what Paul was talking about when he listed discernment as a spiritual gift. The inner sense, sometimes we call it a “gut reaction,” which comes up from deep within us. A gift of the spirit? Yes. And in all of us who follow Jesus. As we pour into our selves the love of God, the word of God and the love of the community of believers, we get filled up with all kinds of good things which will guide us into all truth. Yes, it is intangible. So is the Holy Spirit. And if we don’t trust what we “feel,” then go to the body of Christ and check it out. That is what we are here for.
Discernment in the end is recognizing the work of Jesus in the opportunities which surround us. As we say: the Spirit is at work in the world ahead of us. Pay attention. Take a closer look. Put on different glasses. Do your homework. Check it out with others.
Discerning the Way is for all of us, together, in humility and prayer. Then take action. Sometimes we have to be moving in order for God to steer the vessel.
Discern the body of Christ in these elements…. (1 Cor 11, asks us to discern the body of Christ in what we do here) Time to practice discernment right now.