Those times of decision that God places in our lives can often leave us with great nervousness and anxiety. Many people can simply find no “peace” in their lives until a decision has been made, while others can find no “peace” until every voice is heard and every concern addressed. Torn between the future and the past, the general and the specific, we wrestle in our meetings with hopes and fears, worries and anxiety. This tension has been found in every committee meeting I think I have ever been involved in: there are those who want the peace that comes on the other side of the decision, and those who seek peace beneath every rock on the path toward a decision being made. If we are not too careful, I believe this is the tension that will, in the end, determine many of the outcomes of any meeting, whether it is about a spiritual matter or not. The Quaker ideal of “business as worship” is indeed a beautiful one, but pulling at the strings of this ideal is the ever present “tyranny of the urgent.” The clock keeps ticking and the pressure mounts.
Often we say a quick blessing before “the race” begins, or that predictable type A and type B battle slowly boils into a debate. This quick and hasty blessing can easily amount to a token ritual. God’s will lies unsought, and human wisdom prevails. God’s voice is unconsulted and therefore unheard as we make ever more room for endless possibilities and scenarios of contingency. At times, in the end, it is our own preferences that win the day. We make our decisions based on us, and not on God’s specific will for a given situation. Rather than make our discernment about God and His will, we can easily make it all about us and our wills.
Discernment requires both patience and humility. It challenges us with notions like, “youthfulness is no guarantee of innovation, nor longevity of effectiveness.” When many of us went to the Leadership Training Conference on discernment in Marshalltown, Colin Saxton put up a slide with a photo of people in Spain running with the bulls. The caption below read, “Just because we have always done it that way, doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly stupid.” While hyperbolic, this picture can also be prophetic. It points us to the larger reality that God often calls us in new directions and along the uncomfortable route that change presents. The biggest obstacles to both listening and discernment are…usually ourselves. We have probably all said things like “But we have always done it that way” or its uglier cousin, “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” Neither of these oft heard statements have anything to do with discernment. Change is a part of our relationship with God. Indeed, it is a part of every healthy relationship. Our choice is often more about how we will react to it. Will we listen to another’s new leading?
Quakers have always believed that Christ is present, waiting to be sought. That His voice is not muted unless we ourselves have shut our ears. Richard Foster writes, “Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey His word.” Yet our time spent just before a meeting often does not have room for listening caught between the banging clock and tyrannous agenda at hand. How can we at College Avenue Friends begin to imagine new ways to reclaim the truth found in our second Covenant Statement: “We will listen to God and each other as we make corporate decisions”? We have a wonderful Quaker heritage full of examples of this, we even have a statement declaring our intentions to pursue this path for our own meetings’ spiritual growth, but what will it take for us to better live this out in our covenant community; to make listening to God and discernment a core part of all our business and efforts?
I think, again, Richard Foster has a unique insight that might help us. He writes: “To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.” I wonder if at times, if by the time we go into a meeting we have already spent such effort in homework and preparation that we arrive with a great deal of reluctance to change. We arrive with fully conceived ideas that we are not comfortable holding loosely enough for God to meddle with, if He wills to do so. Perhaps then, it is really prayers of discernment long before the meeting takes place where we must approach issues with humility and open hands. As we seek God’s face and our hearts are formed in prayers to desire what God desires and to love what He loves, we surely will discover what God has for us. As the Scriptures remind us, those that seek find. Yet even if we are sure we are following a leading, we must still allow the community to join us in that discernment. We surely mustn’t miss the opportunity to discern together, to stop and listen to God’s voice together.
Business, after the manner of Friends, is foremost worship. Committees exist to be an extension of the church, responsible for what God has entrusted them, and answerable to Jesus as our head. As Thomas Kelly strove for, we must seek to be as obedient as a shadow, following the movements of our Creator and listening for His voice. The biblical imagery of having “ears to hear” runs counter its imagery of being deaf. Deafness, in its Hebrew conception, is having ears full of something foreign that must first be dug out. Listening isn’t just understanding, it is hearing with the intent to listen as well as obey. As we seek to be more faithful at College Avenue in listening to God, what is it that must be “dug out” before we can allow God a bigger influence upon us as we make decisions? How might even “business,” our planning and organizing, leave even just a little bit more room for encountering God in worship, or stay even more connected with God, seeking His face among the practical and mundane He calls us to navigate?