Today we continue our look into spiritual disciplines. As you know, I have been trying to focus on ones that we don’t talk about as often or as much, and today we will be focusing on the spiritual discipline of guidance.
As people of faith, we recognize that we need God’s guidance. But how do we seek that? How do you seek out God’s guidance?
Many of us are good at asking advice from loved ones when we are struggling to make a decision. But as a spiritual discipline of guidance, we are called to frame these questions and the conversations with others differently. Rather than asking, “What should I do?” the spiritual discipline of guidance calls us to ask, “Where is God in this decision? What is God calling me to do? Which choice will best allow me to serve God to my fullest potential? Which choice is best not only for me, but for all of God’s people?” This last question is especially important because it calls us to see that every choice we make impacts more than ourselves and that every choice we make, therefore, is a choice about if, how and how much good we do for God and God’s people. It again, honors the Spirit in the “other”.
One way we seek out spiritual guidance is to pray, but then do we take the time to listen for the answers?Contemplative listening is a practice that many spiritual directors learn as they listen to their directees, but it is one that we can do with ourselves as we listen to God as well. It involves asking God a question and then literally sitting in the silence and listening. We try to listen for God in a non-anxious space. We try to limit the rattle of our thoughts and our comments to God and simply be with God. We pay attention to the feelings that emerge in our bodies, the images that come to our minds, the questions that pop into our heads, as ways God might be leading us to think, reflect and move differently.
Another practice in guidance is reading scripture, but as we use it for guidance, we are called to read it differently, to sit with it, practicing things like lectio divina, which means “divine word” and is a call to really listen to what scripture is saying to us in each moment.
The spiritual discipline of guidance includes other things though as well. We are called to recognize that God calls not just individuals but communities, and that God’s wisdom is to be found not just within scripture or within one self but also within the community of God’s people. We have come to recognize that the Holy Spirit can talk through groups as well as scripture and prayer, and that we are called to seek out the wisdom and guidance of all those whom the Spirit touches.
As Presbyterians, especially, we believe that call, any call (and we believe that all of us have a call) is discerned in community. Our call process for pastors, for example, involves many people who must affirm and support each potential pastor’s call into ministry. Each pastor-to-be goes through extensive interviews and examinations in ever widening circles. A candidate for ministry must be trained in a theological school system, must also go through rigorous testing that takes place separate from the school, and also must pass through a committee at their home church, and a committee at Presbytery, one on one interviews as well as interviews with committees, finally ending with an examination before the entire Presbytery to discern if that person really is called into ordained ministry. This belief that call is discerned in community is very central to who we are.
Several years ago, there was a debate on the floor of the Presbytery I was part of at the time about whether or not a pastor seeking ordination through our Presbytery should be required to attend at least a few classes at a Presbyterian seminary. There was one pastor who argued vehemently that pastors wanting to be Presbyterian ministers should not have to attend any classes at a Presbyterian seminary. He himself had never attended any classes at a Presbyterian seminary and he told us all that the Committee on Ministry had insisted that he do so. He said it like this, “The Holy Spirit was calling me to attend a different seminary, but the Committee on Ministry told me I had to attend at least a polity (church government) class at a Presbyterian Seminary. I refused to do that, and I’m fine as a Presbyterian Minister.” But as the debate continued, it became clear that he was not, in fact, fine as a Presbyterian pastor. He had failed to understand this very basic principle of Presbyterian belief that a call is discerned through community. The Holy Spirit was calling him, through the committee and through the Presbytery, to take one class at a Presbyterian seminary. He refused the call of the Spirit, and arrogantly assumed that his wishes were in line with the Spirit despite a whole group of people whose call it was to help others discern, telling him otherwise. And as a result, he had no understanding at all of what it really means to be a Presbyterian pastor who recognizes and values the Holy Spirit’s strong and amazing work through communal discernment. Not surprisingly, he left the denomination a couple years after this debate, joining another denomination that does not believe in the call of every individual, nor in call being discerned in this communal way.
Still, the truth is that this is hard for all of us. We all can become arrogant at times and assume that we know what God wants, especially for ourselves, despite a praying body of people who are telling us differently. We all can assume that we are hearing the Spirit more clearly than the body. We all can, at times, fail to follow the call that we are led to through the discernment of the body of Christ in community because we are so individualistic in this culture and we are, frankly, out of practice in discerning God’s will through community.
So, how do we do this with regular concerns? There are several practices of guidance and discernment that are available to us. I mentioned above contemplative listening, study and simply asking God and others for help, and guidance. But there are many other ways as well.
The Quakers practice something called Spirit Rule. When Quakers worship together, they sit in silence, listening for God. Sometimes a Quaker worship service will be entirely silent for the whole hour. However, often times a person will feel called to speak. He or she will say what they feel compelled by the Spirit to express and the rest listen for the underlying truth in what is said. Anyone may speak - woman, man, child, visitor, member. But they see their worship time as a corporate seeking of God’s will. All present are encouraged not to respond to what others have said, but to continue to sit in the silence and listen for the Holy Spirit’s words to them.
Another, non-denominational practice of guidance is something called a “clearness committee”. A clearness committee can be called by any individual for the seeking of guidance around a very specific issue. I graduated from seminary with a concentration in spirituality and one of the required classes for that concentration was a semester long course on clearness committee. We were divided into small groups and each person brought an issue to the group for group focus for a number of weeks before moving to the next person’s question. The purpose was for the group to work together to listen to and for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The person with the question for discernment presents their question, their issue along with any background information that may be informing the question for them. During the first sitting, the members of the group are not to give advice, but to ask questions with the purpose of moving the questions deeper. The questions are not to be hidden advice. For example, “Have you thought about doing x?” is not really a question, but advice. Similarly, “My brother once tried x and it worked for him” is not a question, it is advice. Instead, the questions might be, “How do you feel when you think about this part of what you shared?” “What memories or images come up for you around this part of the issue?” “When you ask God about this part of what you shared, what do you hear?” Other questions might ask for more information, clarification, or deeper thinking. The next session, the person with the question gives feedback as to where their thinking has moved and what has been helpful and then again, the committee asks questions. At this point, committee members can also talk about how they have been impacted by the issue the one member is facing. But again, this must never be framed in terms of advice, but more “when I think about x, I feel anxious because I remember when I made a similar decision and this is what happened.” Or “when I reflected on y, I felt moved to make a change in my own life…” etc. Also , the focus person may ask clarifying or thinking questions of the committee. There is a great deal of silence during these meetings as well, as people listen for the Spirit, and listen for the movement of feelings, etc. The process continues for several weeks, but the key component is that while it is a committee of folk helping one person have greater insight and discernment, advice is never given. We can never fully understand what another person is going through. So helping another person gain insights, remember factors, explore the issues is helpful. But giving advice is not because it is always based on limited information. My own personal experience of clearness committee was that as a listener it was hard not to give advice. At the same time, all of us found that the exercise or practice of listening becomes impeded when we are thinking in terms of advice. When we are just called to listen, the listening can go much, much deeper because we are not distracted by trying to think about what we are supposed to say. As the focus person, it was extremely helpful to not be bombarded with others’ advice, but simply be accompanied in the journey of discernment by wise and thoughtful people who were willing to ask the questions and reflect back what they were hearing without giving direction or advice. This is a practice that I think would be very helpful for any of us to try, and if any of you would like to be part of a clearness committee, or have a particular issue you would like help with, please let me know and we will put one together.
The final practice of discernment or guidance that I want to mention this morning is that of seeking out spiritual direction. Spiritual direction includes many things, and listening to sermons or being part of small groups studying scripture is an aspect of spiritual direction. But actually visiting with a spiritual director is also extremely helpful. Their role and their goal, again, is not to give advice. They listen for God, they help their directees to listen for God, they push questions about where God is acting and what God is guiding us to do. My personal experience is that seeing a spiritual director is extremely helpful in deepening our relationships with God, which then allows for much clearer decision making.
I want to point out one last time that seeking guidance as a spiritual practice is not asking for advice. It is not giving advice. I can’t state this strongly enough. The practice of guidance is a practice of listening for God, deepening our relationship with God, being led by the Spirit, truly, whether that Spirit is talking through an individual or a community. The process of guidance can be distorted, there is danger in it, but the greatest danger comes in the form of charismatic voices trying to give advice, telling us what we need to do, and claiming that they know what needs to be done because God has spoken to them. This is a good reason in itself why advice should never be part of it. And when someone is giving you advice in response to your seeking guidance, I would encourage you to be very wary. Guidance invites you deeper into relationship with God. Real spiritual guidance never seeks to manipulate or control.
The purpose then of seeking guidance is not to have all our problems fixed and to know exactly what we need to do in any moment. The purpose of seeking guidance is to deepen in our relationship with God. That is why it is an important spiritual discipline. We deepen our hearing of God, we deepen our seeking of God, we deepen our experience of God. And we do so with the humility to recognize that we can’t do any of that alone. We are led by the community of God’s people as well as the Holy Spirit in our deepening. We acknowledge that none of us have all the answers or really any of the answers. Only God does, and when we have the humility to seek guidance in these different ways, we remember that God is always there to lead us when we but ask. We remember that God wants us to be in full relationship with God because in choosing relationship with God, we are choosing to be the most whole, genuine version of ourselves that we can be. We remember that God’s answers are perfect, and are just waiting to be given. Thanks be to God! Amen.