Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Discernment: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 08/12/2012

a video stream is available at http://www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand


Some of us are facing momentous, life shaping decisions. Do we move? Do we marry? Do we change jobs? Careers? Have kids? Adopt? Homeschool? Go to college? Retire? What do we do in our retirement? Stay in this or that relationship or not? Start this business or not? Some of us are facing other kinds of decisions. Do we join that ministry? Accept that invitation to lead? Go on that mission trip? Spend that money or save that money or give that money to the church? Do we try to reconcile with this person or not? Do we buy that car? Do we go to this church or that church? And day by day we have the simple decisions. Which calls to return. Which offers of help to offer. Or to accept. What to do with our free time. What’s the best way to do this thing or that thing. What to read, what to watch, what habits to develop or break. And on and on.

Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve (discern) what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:1

Beginning a series on discernment.

Discernment (n): The quality to grasp and comprehend what is obscure

What’s wrong with my car?

Why does my kid have this rash?

Who’s in the right and who is in the wrong in that argument?

[play 5-6 song clip…. Play it again…]

Sometimes it takes discernment to even know what to discern…What do I want to do tonight? What does she really want me to say?

In this series, we’ll be talking about discernment primarily as this practice or process of testing and approving, of figuring out, of determining what God’s desire is.

In the midst of the countless forces, options, and decisions that characterize our lives, how do we know which step to take when? What is God’s call for each of us? Over the course of lives. This year. Day by day. Moment by moment. Decision by decision.

The pushes and pulls we face in modern life are unprecedented. Compare a young person growing up in the time of Jesus with a young person making their way forward in today’s world. The ancient girl’s daily activities are determined by her mother’s daily activities. So much is prescribed for her. She will be bat-mitzvahed at 13. Her husband will be chosen for her. Her life, from adolescence on, will be filled mainly with bearing and raising children. Unless she is wealthy, she won’t have to make many decisions about her clothing or her children’s clothing. Barring war or some other tragedy, she will live in one place her whole life. She will worship in one synagogue.

Compare that with the decisions that will likely present themselves to my 7 year old daughter. She wakes to a dresser full of clothing of various styles and colors to choose from. A cupboard of various cereals and bowls, spoons and cups. An iPad with hundreds of apps, a screen full of various entertainment options, a room full of plastic crates with different plastic toys, the possibility on any particular day of visiting friends from miles around if she can convince mom or dad to drive her there. She may one day choose from a pool of potentially millions of men to marry. Or not. She may go to school any place in the country, or not. She may study anything in the world she desires, choose from all kinds of places to live, surround herself with whatever friends she likes, give her energies to any of an almost limitless number of causes or projects or occupations. She will determine largely on her own the way in which she practices and expresses the faith that she also determines largely on her own. And on and on and on.

A market research film last year estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared to 5,000 today. 2,000 is crazy enough. But 5,000? That’s 5,000 invitations asking for a decision.

This summer we visited NYC, arriving at 6 a.m. in the city that never sleeps. As we walked and got hungry, it became clear that we had dozens and dozens of options for eating within easy walking distance. What direction to go? Which bagel place to try? What kind to get? Toasted or not? What kind of cream cheese? Eat inside or outside? Advertisements beckoned everywhere, for everything. We stopped and asked an older man who looked like a city veteran for a recommendation. He deliberated, made a suggestion, and pointed uncertainly in a direction, mentioned some street names, and then was gone. We plugged the name of the bagel place in our phone’s gps, only to discover that there were 6 or 7 of that same place within walking distance. We’d gotten help, and our options were narrowed, but still decisions stood in front of us. We set out for one of them, only to find it didn’t open for 30 more minutes. What now?

What now, indeed. What now in our lives? We find ourselves here, wherever here is, and decisions face us. Options open up before us, or narrow down, but still we must decide or decide not to decide and have it decided for us. What now? That is the question discernment tries to help us answer.

Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert writes in a book called Stumbling on Happiness about how human beings tend to make decisions about their futures. What they decide to do now in light of how they imagine they will experience the future they imagine their decisions will produce. However, although we are uniquely gifted in the animal kingdom at imagining the future, we do a terrible job a lot of the time.

Sometimes our brains add stuff to our future imaginings that aren’t actually there. Even worse, sometimes they leave things out. And add to that, we do a really bad job estimating how we will experience these poorly imagined futures. The reasons are many and complex, but let me give you just one simple for instance.

Have you ever made a commitment to do something a ways off in the future, only to feel like you might regret that decision as the day gets closer and closer? Maybe a commitment to help someone out with something, like taking care of their kids, or to help them move? 3 months ago when they asked you, you thought, wow, I’d love to do that. That would really make me feel good. But if they were to ask you today to help with that tomorrow, you might think, oh man, I’m going to be really busy and their kids are kind of rambunctious and I’m pretty tired. Or, wow, they really haven’t packed very well and it’s going to be hot, and I was really looking forward to golfing, not hauling couches through narrow doorways.


It has to do with the different ways our brains imagine the near future and the far future. If you see a zebra up close, you see the fur and the stripes and the definition of its muscles and so forth. If you see one far away on the horizon, it looks a little vague and smoothed out, not much detail present. But your brain doesn’t think, wow, I bet that’s a really vague, smoothed out looking animal over there. It knows that it’s a zebra and will look like other zebras when it gets close. Our brains don’t do that with the far away future. They tend to keep the far away future smoothed out and vague.

So we think about helping with the kids or the moving, we tend to imagine a vague future in terms of smooth whys, not the messy details of hows. If I do it, they will be helped, and I will feel good. And they need help, and I can help, and I’ve got plenty of time to figure out the details. But as we get close, all the messy details come into view. The getting up early instead of sleeping in on Saturday. The way our body and mind feels after a week of work. The snotty noses and unpacked kitchen. All the other more attractive, fun things that become possibilities on that day that we have to decline to do this thing we promised to do. And on and on. Somehow, our brain forgets that zebras are zebras are zebras, no matter how far away they are.

The reality is, our only hope of true happiness is trusting God for the good future he is preparing for us (Repent, and believe the good news! Jesus proclaims, over and over). And so, our only hope of truly good life requires that we learn to discern what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will. And that we let our discernment of God’s will – his good, pleasing and perfect will – shape our every decision, large and small. Thoughtfully considered decisions, and habitually made decisions, alike.

The stakes for learning discernment are high. Through our decisions, large and small, we become who we are. Very little that matters about who I am is true of me apart from my decisions. Sure, some of my physical features and internal make-up are a function of genetics. But who I love and who I am loved by, and where I live and what I do and much of the condition of my body and mind and emotions and my even my deepest desires are a direct function of my decisions.

Jesus says in John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Those discerned decisions I’ve made as part of my worship, in co-creative cooperation with God’s will, are the decisions that have filled me and the world I have influence on with life, life to the full. And those undiscerning decisions I’ve made conforming to the pattern of this world are the ones that have stolen life from me, and deadened me, and brought destruction to me and the world I have influence on.

For those who are committed followers of Jesus already among us, I hope this series will give us some practical tools and encouragement to press gracefully into the way Jesus has marked out for us. I hope it will encourage us to fix our eyes afresh on the next step of discipleship Jesus has for us that draws us nearer to himself, and nearer to becoming who we truly are, and nearer to his kingdom coming in its fullness within us and around us. I hope that in the end, you will embark more vigorously on a way of following Jesus that brings about a renewing of your mind so that you can gracefully discern what God’s will is, and join your life to it freely and joyfully.

For those who are newer to faith, or considering faith in Jesus, I hope to paint a clearer picture for you in this series of what following Jesus really means. Of the kind of adventure with God that being a disciple of Jesus is. Of the kind of surprising, loving God that is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, and the kind of surprising, new humanity that he reveals as well. I hope in the end, you will discern that the way to the best, the most pleasing, and the most perfect life possible is the life of co-creative, cooperative faith in Jesus.

I want to close with one simple thought, and then a couple of practical tips.

The simple thought is this. Although trusting God’s will for your life by offering your body as a living sacrifice in worship to him can seem like a risky thing compared to trusting your own instinct for the best way to have life (what if he wills me to do this hard thing, or that hard thing, or whatever!?), it is in truth the only safe and life-giving way forward in a world subject to brokenness , despair, and death. According to Romans 12, learning to discern and follow God’s will in every part of our lives is part of how we love God. And according to Romans 8:28, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. So when Romans 12 says that God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect, it doesn’t just mean it’s good, pleasing and perfect to him, but it may be pretty sub-par for you. It means it’s good, pleasing and perfect all around, you especially included. Even if you can’t imagine how, right now. So choose to pursue a course of learning to discern God’s will for your life, and commit to being the kind of worshipper whose worship isn’t just on Sunday mornings, but whose worship is expressed in every decision you make.

Practical Tips:

1. Take a happiness inventory. Write down 3 sources of true happiness in your life right now. And think about how they came to be in your life. Reflect on how they reveal a God who might have imagined better for your life than you imagined yourself. Did you imagine them and go get them? Or did God arrange things in such a way that when you cooperated with him, they became present to you?

2. Start a daily Awareness Examination. This is a simple discernment tool / discipline we will talk more about in coming weeks, but you can get started on it now. Ask God to look at your day with you. What does God show you about your day? What was important to God from your day? Talk to God about your day.

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