New Heavens and a new earth: New compassion

As individuals and as communities, we are always facing decisions. Of course, many are seemingly simple and mundane. Choosing a place to eat or what to wear. Others, however, are complex and agonizing. For which vocation should I prepare? What course of treatment do I take to address my illness? Should this marriage be ended? Should I start on a methadone program? How should we respond faithfully to the ongoing war in Afghanistan? These are decisions that cry out for guidance. We yearn for clues that will direct us – a burning bush, a heavenly voice, a bright star, some sign, any sign, that will make clear to us the way we should go. There is much at stake and we don’t want to misstep.

All the more difficult is discernment – when we consider all the colliding forces that storm around us.

  • There are conflicting promptings that wrestle within us, the tangled mix of self-deceptions and authentic impulses for life.
  • There is conflicting prompting from outside ourselves. Friends and mentors are people who emerge from a culture that is driven by mixtures of perceptiveness and deception, of freedom and addiction, productivity and fruitfulness.

In the small group I am leading this spring, we are discussing the book “The Twenty-Piece Shuffle: Why the Poor and Rich Need Each Other”. One of the answers to ‘why’, is that the rich and poor have a lot in common, they share basic human needs, and ask the same questions. ‘Who do I want to be?’, is one question that all people need to discern, regardless of our economic situation.

Greg Paul – the author of the book – suggests that one of the deceptive answers that our culture gives is ‘productive’. “We’re not machines. We’re living, breathing, growing, creating beings, created in love”. “We long for that uniqueness to be recognized and valued. We want to know that we matter. In this sense, we want to be productive – to know that we have something to offer, the ability to do or create things that other people want.” “But productivity as an end in itself – the kind of productivity our western society has made into a religion – comes at an exorbitant human {and environmental} cost.” (p. 114)

You might be a guy on the streets of Lake City, who is reliable and an expert at finding, obtaining and distributing the drugs people want. Productive, But at what cost?
You may be a dancer in a Lake City club, and clients take an interest in you, taking you to the best salons for hair, nail, and beauty treatments. Productive, But at what cost?
You may be a developer whose adept at obtaining ‘underutilized’ land in Seattle for new development, land on which affordable housing currently exists. Productive, But at what cost?
You work for a bank, and you are rewarded for the many new accounts you have gathered – but they are mostly among low-income and immigrant people who have never managed an account, and don’t understand the hidden fees and penalties. Productive, But at what cost?

When discerning the question of who we want to be? There are internal and external voices like addictions, self-esteem, profit margins, and fear – which we all have in common, and which work together to muddy the water and seduce us with the rush of “knowing that we can (sometimes) accomplish things that others can’t, even if the end of it is ultimately destructive”. (p. 120) Greg Paul suggests that an alternative motivation to unchecked worship of productivity, is that of fruitfulness.

Fruitfulness is guided by questions not of accomplishment, but questions like:

  • What is my deepest desire?
  • What makes my heart leap up?
  • What draws me?
  • What gives life to me and others?

Fruitfulness is a path toward a New Heaven and a New Earth – growth that is winding, backtracking, slippery, and stumbling, but ultimately focused on that for which God’s heart actually yearn. Fruitfulness is listening to our Maker who invites us to participate in the divine activities of healing, compassion, and transformation.
We hear that call to discernment and listening to the voice of the Shepherd in Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I have everything I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
He leads me beside Peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.

Resting in the meadow? Hanging out by a peaceful brook? Are these the activities of productivity and accomplishment?

The Lord is close beside me.
You protect and comfort me.
You welcome me.
You anoint me.
You bless me.
You love pursues me all the days of my life.

Making difficult decisions amidst competing voices and temptations, from within and outside of ourselves can feel like the dark valley of death. Yet Psalm 23 stands in the biblical tradition which says…

  • We are not alone during such times
  • God is present, hoping and urging, in the midst of all the situations of life.
  • God is passionately involved in human affairs and intimately invested in our questioning
  • God’s involvement in our lives has purpose and direction
  • God is seeking to bring healing and wholeness and reconciliation, transforming this broken world into the New Creation where there will be no more sadness or injustice or pain.

Discernment is our response to this God and the intentional practice by which we seek, recognize, and take part in the activity of God in concrete situations.

People have always faced these decisions: Look at Peter in our scriptures from Acts today. When you hear about Peter here and in the chapters leading up to this, we hear about ultimate focus on God’s healing and compassionate work – careful discernment despite all kinds of opposition.

  • In Acts 2 – Peter steps out to interpret the coming of the Holy Spirit, for many were saying they were drunk. 3000 people responded to the call to turn to God, and they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and fellowship, sharing in the Lord’s supper and prayer. This eventually became a movement to share everything they had, so no one was in need. Productivity or Fruitfulness?
  • In Acts 3 & 4 – Peter steps out into the streets and temple healing and speaking, until he was arrested and questioned. He was pressured to stop spreading the propaganda about Jesus, but said he could not stop telling about the wonderful things he saw and heard. Discernment – focused on the voice of God.
  • Straight from there, Peter and John found the other believers and prayed “O Lord, hear their threats, and give your servants boldness in their preaching. Send your healing power and may miraculous signs be done.” Ultimate focus.
  • In Acts 5 Peter is jailed, released by an angel – and goes back to the temple – telling furious religious leaders that they must follow God.
  • In Acts 6 & 7 – Stephen is arrested and killed, Saul is going door to door and arresting believers, and all the believers except the apostles are scattered into Judea and Samaria. Then Saul is converted and begins an amazing preaching ministry in Damascus. The man who had the authority to arrest every believer, shows up in Jerusalem and wants to meet with the apostles. They are afraid because they thought he was just pretending. But after hearing his testimony and seeing his good works – they placed aside their fear of their oppressor and welcomed him. Then the community of believers “had peace, and it grew in numbers as they walked in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Then we find the scripture from today – Peter traveling from place to place – experiencing the fruitfulness of a life given to the activity of God in concrete situations.

So the story of God raising Tabitha from the dead is a snapshot, an outcome which follows all this other faithful discernment of the body of believers and their seeking guidance to the question, who is God calling us to be and do? It was clear to the apostles, as written by Jan Sobrino, that Christian discernment is “the particular quest for the will of God, not only to understand it but also to carry it out.”

Ignatius of Loyola – founder of the Jesuit order – developed a method of discernment in order to enhance one’s participation in the work of God. For Ignatius, true discernment is undertaken for the glory of God and the healing of the world, it is the end goal of all decisions we face. For Ignatius, Quakers, and others – discernment does not presume certain specific outcomes, but what matters are the foundations, or put another way, the table with many legs that we set up into order to be a discerning people.

-One leg is God’s original blessing of all people that all are created in God’s image – love expressed in the baptism of Jesus – “You are God’s beloved child. With you God is well pleased.” Bedrock.
-A second leg is covenant – the God who loves and blesses us at our birth, does not give up when we turn away – but rather God offers a life-giving covenant. We must choose whether or not to receive that love and enter into the covenant relationship God offers.
-A third leg which follows our choice to accept God’s love, is a call to the use of gifts, energy and creativity for God’s purposes in the world. Uncovering our potential for bringing healing and reconciliation to a world which does not yet fully reflect God’s hopes and desires.
-A fourth leg is indifference toward all other drives and desires – to align with God is to reject our own desire for wealth, prestige and security. Discernment means distinguishing God’s Spirit from other spirits that are present in a given time and place – such as the spirit of a nation, the spirit of the times, the spirit of competition. It is distinguishing the voice of God, from other voices which speak to us: the voice of our parents echoing from years past, the voices of friends, voices of urgency, addiction or fear. Not that these voices are inherently good or bad, and God can speak through them – but indiscriminately followed they may have outcomes not a part of God’s hopes and desires.
-A fifth leg is a sensitivity to God’s leading, a desire to tap into God’s voice – a sensitivity which is cultivated through prayer, meditation, worship and faithful acts of compassion. Loving, listening, noticing and making choices in light of God’s desires, is the ongoing dynamic of a journey, which seeks to tap into the divine flow of wisdom. If we imagine God’s ways as a wide river flowing to the sea. To be a discerning church means finding the current, being aware of its power and flowing with it.

  • in the book of Acts – individuals are affirmed for their faithfulness, but it is clear that their desire to follow God in concrete situations in rooted in the collective being a discerning body. It was the believers together who discerned how the individual wealth and resources were to be shared. It was the believers together who discerned to give Saul a welcome. It was the believers together who prayed for strength and faithfulness in the face of opposition and in Acts 4:31 it says “After this prayer, the building where they were meeting shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. And they preached God’s message with boldness”. This is the promised potential of Christian community (Atrium, Adult Ed, Community Ministry, Worship, Small Groups), that we can create an environment of love and care which praises God, stimulates self-understanding and the discovery of gifts to be offered to the stream of God’s ways.
  • The work of our Discernment Committee to invite people into groups which coordinate our common life, is merely the beginning of discernment – for it is those groups, committees, advisories, and councils – who are gifted with the opportunity to create spaces and gatherings that empower discernment to happen. The task of the Discernment Committee is to help our congregation set up the table, to put before us the opportunity to work together with other believers – who can remember that beyond the details of coordination and planning – lies the larger purpose of developing a common life that invites people to say yes to God’s covenant of love, and supports our ongoing discernment of where and how to participate in God’s renewing, compassionate work in the church and world.

I am not so presumptuous that all of us today can fill out these discernment sheets, and place them in the offering. Discernment is not forced and does not respect timelines. So these are cards that you can offer today or take with you and bring back as your offering some other time. Giving space for prayer and conversation about:

  • What is my deepest desire?
  • What makes my heart leap up?
  • What draws me?
  • What gives life to me and others?

Discernment is not about being more productive, God is not asking any of us to bring the new Creation into fulfillment alone. But when we have discerned our particular call in light of the world’s need and act into obedience, we discover amazing reservoirs of energy and purpose.

Parker Palmer says that fruitfulness and abundance is “created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. The true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.” When Jesus called the disciples to a life of intentional abiding in God and faithful love for one another, he promised fruitfulness and joy. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” May our discernment journey bear this fruit of joy – as we drink of God’s spirit and reach out in compassion.