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Discerning the Will of God

Would that it were only the TV evangelists I stumble on when surfing the TV's offerings. But the pious malady seems epidemic, even in churches that think themselves sane and sensible. I mean the reflexive use of the phrase "the will of God," as if that lofty aspiration were as achievable as calculating any day's dawning.

True, there are many important matters where the will of God is obvious. Like what to do when a friend betrays you: forgive her.  Like when a beggar appears at your door asking for food: feed him.  Like when the Storm Trooper bangs on your door and demands to know if you are harboring Jews and you are: lie.  Like when everything inside you is roiled by some slight or indignity and "you don't get no respect": don't let the sun go down on your anger, calm down, cool off.  Like when the crowd is in a fever to find a scapegoat and selects a handy ethnicity: find courage to speak up and then make peace. 

Yet, even in these instances, uncertainty remains... and you will certainly point it out to me... as could I. 

In vast areas of human endeavor, however, perceiving the will of God is dicey at best.

Take, for an example I know something about, something that has perturbed me for a career: the piety surrounding leaving one pastorate to take another. Clergy routinely report that they have to pray about such a change.  Which leads non-clergy to assume that God must be whispering in the reverend's ear, a possibility they would not entertain for themselves when leaving one company for another.  In my experience, however, I have observed that preachers go from one church to the next for the same reason the laity switch jobs: an increase in salary.  In our Methodist annual conference in the last half of the twentieth century God's will for a change in appointments correlated with a five hundred dollar increase in annual salary.  If the pastor heard divine murmurs encouraging him to move on, they may well have been whispers in the night from a spouse. No, no, the parson is not solely motivated by mammon; just that it does enter and enter significantly into career decisions.

But, please, there's no need to pretty it up with piety.

The eleven disciples made like they were Methodist pastors when they needed to select someone to take Judas's place.  They prayed, and, then, according to the Book of Acts, they got real and threw dice and Matthias got the nod over Barsabbas.  Sometimes when reading the appointment list for the New York Annual Conference it occurred to me that maybe the bishop and the cabinet also shot dice... of course, after they prayed. 

Which, for no logical reason, reminds me of dear Catherine, the Brooklyn Cubmaster's widow, who appeared in my study one afternoon with a Bible wrapped in elastic bands, with a large skeleton key protruding from the holy book.  She explained that she could discern the will of God by asking the banded Bible a question while she pressed the skeleton key between her hands.  If the book jerked left, the divine answer was "No"; to the right, "Yes." I report that one of the questions she asked had to do with me and the curing of her aching lumbar by the laying on of hands.

Catherine's Bible did little harm.  Not so the TV preachers who claim without a shadow of doubt that what they discern about national and international politics (and just about everything else) is from the mind and heart of God through them to you and me. There's a seven letter word accurately applied to their discernment, and you can guess what I think it is.  Right! Hogwash.

John Wesley equipped his clergy with a strategy for divining the will of God.  Maybe he borrowed it from the Episcopalians.  Wikipedia, that not always reliable online resource for fact checkers, credits Albert Outler, 20th century professor at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology, with coining the phrase "Wesleyan Quadrilateral."  Simply put, to divine the will of God rely on a combination of Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. I can live and preach with that. But I would reframe it into Bible, History, and Common Sense, all of it immersed in a large amount of Humility.

Take, for instance, the thorny issue of participating in violent acts.  Jesus advocates the turned cheek. He also chases the money-changers from the temple with a whip of cords. A valiant strain of pacifism runs through the Christian experience from the very beginning; yet even an avowed pacifist, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, can reach a point where he can no longer tolerate rampant evil (Naziism) without acting to blow it up.  Nor have I stood by as if hands were tied when a young bully on our block in Brooklyn pummeled a classmate on the sidewalk. Peacemaking is the Christian's vocation, and sometimes that purpose requires violent intervention.  Just don't easily welcome justifying thoughts about the necessity of what is done. 

For the fun of it, and because it's something I've thought about long and often, consider again the matter discussed above, a pastor going from one church to another. I never got the chance in the moment to pray about going to the church in Brooklyn.  I was cashiered in suburbia and landed in metropolis without much of a personal say-so.  Was it the will of God?  Emphatically, yes, I can testify and you can read why over and over again on this website.  Perceiving the will of God is much clearer in retrospect.  The Norwegians of Brooklyn taught me everything I needed to know for a  lifetime about being a pastor.  I thought my ecclesiastical career should be spent among those I knew best, Connecticut Yankees.  Barbara and I, from the land of lawns and tall trees, shuddered as we drove down Seventh Avenue the first time, aghast at row houses with cement lawns. If you had told us in 1956 that this parish is what God had in mind for me, I would have told you that I didn't think I had done anything to merit such punishment. Nearly twenty years later, when I followed so many of my former parishioners in their migration east, I felt a deep nostalgia for the little church on the corner and all of those blue-eyed blonde-haired choir members (and others, of course) who greeted me when we first arrived.

There's a snippet from a verse in the second chapter of the Letter to the Philippians which comes often to mind when trying to read God's hand in charting my and everyone else's course through this world: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."  Finality and certainty are reserved for heaven's counsels not earthly pulpits or prayer stalls.  Here, someone said, and you know who, we see in a mirror darkly... mostly puzzling reflections.    



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