Knowing God\’s Will

“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good and pleasing and mature.”
Romans 12:2 (Common English Bible)
     Recently, my friend Tom Tewell shared with me a basic and helpful approach to seeking God’s will – an approach he had learned years earlier from Lloyd J. Ogilvie. The place to begin is a careful reading of the Bible and prayer. Seeking God’s will in a particular circumstance, or more generally for one’s life, must always begin with some grasp of who God is. What can we know of God and how God has worked through human history from God’s word in the Holy Scriptures? God’s desire for today will not contradict God’s character as disclosed in the Bible. If God is opposed to adultery in the Bible, for instance, God remains opposed to adultery. Simply, we will never discern that God may be calling us to violate our marriage vows.
     The second movement to discerning God’s will is by consulting with a few trusted people who have demonstrated, in some way, that they listen carefully for God’s direction. These will be people who have been widely noticed by others as “paying attention to God” as they live each day. Share with them what you think God may be calling you to do. Then invite them to place what you think you hear alongside what they know of God and God’s activity. Is there consistency? Does what you believe God is saying match-up with the God your friends have come to know from years of following Christ? Some Christian leaders refer to this practice as “discernment in community.” Bring what you hear to a faithful community so they can say if it makes sense to them from what they know of God.
     Finally, pay attention to the opportunities that present themselves – and those that don’t. What some may simply call “circumstances” may be powerful indicators of what God is up to in your life. If you believe God is calling you to missionary work overseas and no doors seem to be opening for that to happen, it is well to rethink if God’s will has been properly discerned. On the other hand, if you sense God is calling you to partner with Habitat for Humanity for building homes for the poor, and you have particular skills for building homes, and have discretionary time available in your routine rhythm of life and then hear of a specific need from that organization that you can meet, and feel a burden for those who can’t afford a home – well, you see where I am going.
     Many ask why finding God’s will has to be such a struggle. My own take on that is that God planned it that way. It is in the struggle that we go deeper and deeper in a relationship with God. Think of it this way. A meaningful relationship with a spouse is built by paying close attention to their likes and dislikes over a long period of time. We listen carefully when they speak. We watch what makes them happy and what discourages them. We take notice of their idiosyncrasies. This takes effort, naturally. But it is the effort – over time – that results is a deep and satisfying relationship with another. God wants no less from us.


Essay on 11/1/2015

This week\’s blog is an essay Dr. Hood wrote for Lectionary Homiletics, a professional journal for preachers.  The essay was prepared to assist subscribers on this journal in thinking creatively about their own sermon development of the lectionary text for November 1, 2015.

November 1, 2015
Preaching Mark 12: 28-34
            To listen to some Christians, it is easy to get the impression that what matters most are the decisions that we make. Faith is reduced to getting everything right; how we dress for church, what we do on Sunday after church, the company we keep during the week or the decisions parents make in how to raise their children. This passage begins with that assumption. A legal expert stands in the shadows eavesdropping on a Q & A between Jesus and the Sadducees. Impressed with how Jesus answers their questions he approaches Jesus for clarity; “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Verse 28) It is the same question asked by many in our churches, asked by people who have condensed the faith to “following the rules.”
            The wise preacher will acknowledge that each of us are prone to such an approach to the faith, particularly with local churches and denominations splintering over doctrinal issues and disagreements with how particular scriptures are to be interpreted. Jesus refuses to answer with only one law. Love of God and love of neighbor are held together. With love at the center of this text, we may speak of God’s call to a visionary reunion of heart, soul, mind, and strength. And that a love of neighbor must complete the great commandment. A sermon may have as a title, The Church Divided which asks, “Is the substance of our faith located in following a rulebook?” The result of such a faith is division from others who may hear something different in their own reading of the Bible.
            In a passionate spiritual autobiography, Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, Lauren F. Winner shares that she was raised the child of a Jewish father and a lapsed Southern Baptist mother. The moment came, as it does for all of us, that Winner had to make a faith decision for her own life. She chooses to become an Orthodox Jew with the multitude of rules for living faithfully. Yet, following her faith decision, Winner experiences what she describes as an inescapable courtship by a “very determined carpenter from Nazareth.”[i]She eventually converts to the Christian faith.
            One may well question if this was a similar experience by the legal expert who questions Jesus in our text. He not only stands apart physically from the Sadducees who initially questions Jesus, he stands apart from them in spirit, not hostile toward Jesus but inescapably attracted to Jesus. Not only does this story explicitly mention the legal experts’ gracious response to Jesus’ answer, Jesus is equally gracious in saying to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” (Verse 34) This story cautions interpreters of the New Testament from identifying all Jewish religious leaders as hostile to Jesus.
            Here in the sermon I would shift to providing examples of how our churches are fractured and hearts are wounded by vitriolic discourse as we demand from others conformity to our insight and understanding of the rules. We have become like many of the religious leaders of scripture – we also want to know if there are some laws that are weightier than others. What Jesus does here is change the conversation. Rather than a life that “gets it right” by perfect obedience to the rule book, Jesus invites people into a relationship; a relationship with God and neighbor that is defined by love. Jesus pries open and expands our thinking about what faithfulness looks like.
            I would close the sermon by mentioning a magazine cover of The New Yorker from December 18th, 1948. This cover depicts a snow covered, white church with a front door and a side door, both open wide to the blistery, winter weather. Through the front door enter tired people, bent over with age, all dressed in drab grey, one walking with the assistance of a cane. Exiting the side door are young children, dressed in bright, primary colors, each laughing and carrying a gift. It is, for me, a visual parable. The discouraged, disillusioned and broken seek the shelter of the church. They enter from a penetratingly cold world that has worn them down. In the shelter of God’s grace each are transformed. They reenter the world with laughter, the energy of a child, dressed in vivid colors and carrying a gift.
             In this lectionary text from Mark, Jesus receives those who have become burdened – even broken – by the various demands of the law and gifts them with an invitation to experience a whole life transformation that results, not from a focus on the law, but on living into a relationship with God and with one another. God is not satisfied with less than the all of us, “you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Verse 30) And God demands, “You will love your neighbor as yourself.” (Verse 31) The church God seeks is less one that is caught-up with which laws matter more but with a community of people who strive to understand – and live into – what it means to love God and one another.

[i] Lauren F. Winner, Girl Meets God: On The Path To A SpiritualLife (New York: Water Brook Press, 2002), 12.

Essay on 11/8/2015

This week’s blog is an essay Dr. Hood wrote for Lectionary Homiletics, a professional journal for preachers. The essay was prepared to assist subscribers of this journal in thinking creatively about their own sermon development of the lectionary text for November 8th, 2015.

November 8, 2015
Preaching Mark 12:38-44
            Preachers have multiple choices here for relevant and timely sermons – religious hypocrisy, financial generosity, oppression of the vulnerable (attention here is on widows), and the meaning of authentic discipleship. My own preaching has a strong pastoral care focus because of the particular congregation that I serve; a large, predominately older membership that struggles with issues of being single again after the death of a spouse, loneliness, finding meaning and self-value following retirement, and having sufficient access to food and health-care. A sermon for this congregation might be titled, A Life Unnoticed; a sermon that acknowledges that on any given Sunday there are people present who fear that they are no longer seen and cared for.
            I might begin the sermon with examples of those who are no longer noticed in our communities, particularly people who are older and single, those who struggle with addiction, and the under-resourced. We do not live in the most compassionate of times and such people are shoved out of sight and mind. Our full and frantic lives may be partly to blame. We simply do not have the time or emotional energy to acknowledge these people and be available to them. Nursing homes, addiction clinics, and homeless shelters protect us from seeing them and feeling any sense of responsibility to them. And yet, all people want to be noticed, valued and cared for – the financially privileged and the forgotten. We are all the same.
            Here I would dive into the text and invite the congregation to see two stories, the legal experts in the first story and the poor widow in the second story. In the first story,2 the legal experts go to considerable effort to be noticed for their devotion and sacrifice. In the second story there is a widow who has probably abandoned any hope of ever being noticed again. There is no attempt by this woman to be noticed by anyone. She simply makes her gift to the temple treasury from an impulse of faith, an impulse that discloses her quiet gratitude and trust in God.  Jesus notices both, the legal experts and the woman.  Yet, what is remarkable in this text is that those who sought to be noticed received Jesus’ displeasure. The one who did not seek any notice is held-up by Jesus as an honorable example of authentic discipleship. 
            At this point my direction in the sermon would be to share the discouragement – and fear – that some people have as “invisible” members of our communities. They feel unattractive, have little to offer anyone, and are lonely. The despair that they experience makes moving through each day unbearable. This gives the church a wonderful opportunity to share the companionship and compassion of Christ. An invitation to dinner, to family celebrations and even acknowledging their birthdays proclaims that they are people with dignity and worth. We are the children of a God who notices and protects the unnoticed, and therefore, we are called to be agents of God’s protecting and providing grace.
            Near the end of the sermon I would remind the congregation that each person has something to contribute to the mission of the church – even someone who may appear to have little to offer as the widow in our scripture lesson. Perhaps I would point to the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25:14-30) that there is an unequal distribution of gifts among God’s people, some receiving five talents, some two talents and others one talent, but all are expected to invest what they have received for God’s good purposes. The church has the responsibility of connecting each person, poor widows included, with an appropriate ministry that the mission of the church is advanced and Christ glorified because of their participation.

            I would then close the sermon with the high calling of investing in the lives of persons who may go unnoticed where we live. There is a story in Jewish tradition of a rabbi who was so holy that it was rumored that on Sabbath afternoons he ascended into heaven to personally commune with God. The rumor grew from the observation that this rabbi simply seem to disappear from sight in the local community until the end of the day. Several boys decided to secretly follow the rabbi. Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening they saw the rabbi go into the homes of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. He cooked meals, cleaned homes and read scripture to the lonely. When the boys were later asked if the rabbi really ascended into heaven, the boys answered, “No. He went much higher.”

Something Familiar

“Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road
and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.”
Luke 24: 35 (Common English Bible)
     I received this week Brian Wilson’s new album, No Pier Pressure, his eleventh solo album. It is heavy on guest stars including Zooey Deschanel, my favorite guest on the album. Together, Wilson and Deschanel sing a track called, On the Island, a breezy lounge tune that imagines becoming stranded in the Caribbean. After listening to this track several times alone I asked my wife to listen and guess who Brian Wilson is singing with. Before the first lyric was sung she answered, Zooey Deschanel! “How could you possibly know that? No one has started singing!” I said. “The whistling,” my wife answered. “Zooey Deschanel’s whistling is familiar to me.” Indeed, the track begins with whistling before the first lyric is sung.
     Here, in Luke’s Gospel it is Easter, now later in the day from the experience of the resurrection that morning. Two disciples are walking together along a road, traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened in the past few days; the parade into Jerusalem, the arrest and the crucifixion of Jesus. While they were discussing these things, Jesus appears and joins them in their journey. But, they did not recognize that it was Jesus.
     Jesus asks the disciples what they are talking about. With brokenness and grief they express their astonishment that anyone would have to ask, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?” (Verse 18) The disciples then proceed to tell “this stranger” all that had occurred. More, they express that their deepest hope had been that the one crucified would be the promised one to redeem Israel. After arriving in Emmaus Jesus pretended to leave the disciples and continue on. But they urged him to stay and share supper with them.  After Jesus took his place at the table he took bread, blessed it and broke it. At that moment the two disciples recognized Jesus! Why did they recognize Jesus at that precise moment? According to the Bible, there was something familiar in how Jesus took the bread, blessed it and broke it.
     The question that presses against my heart when I read this story is this; will anyone recognize me today as a follower of Jesus? Will there be anything familiar in how I speak, how I behave and the manner in which I love that will result in others seeing Jesus in me? The Christian life has much more to do with our lives than with a mental consent to a collection of thoughts and beliefs. The Christian life is a call to a reorientation of how we are to live. It is a call to an imitation of the life of Jesus. Our progress will be measured when others recognize something familiar in us, something that reminds them of Jesus.



“We can’t find goodness anywhere.”
Psalm 4:6 (Common English Bible)
            It would seem that the one who wrote these words has been paying attention to our daily news. After skimming the headlines of the morning paper or turning off the nightly news these seem to be our words; “We can’t find goodness anywhere.” A plane crash that kills everyone on board, religious extremist who take innocent lives, and violence in our cities – is any of that good? There are many who are weary; many who would ask, isn’t there anything good for us to see?
            The mood here is one of desperation. This is a plea for someone, anyone, to show us something good – to point to the light in the darkness. And the darkness seems vast. Yet, though we may seek a pile of ready-made answers, the Bible does not provide them. Snappy answers or smooth arguments to the agonizing question of human experience are absent. All that remains is this plea before God.  But that is something. A plea before God is an affirmation of faith that there is God. There may be darkness in the world. But God is also in the world.
            We may ask, “Why God would let something like this happen?” I received that very question this week in my email box. Yet, we must know that this is not the first time this question has been seriously raised. This is a question that stretches forward to us from the beginning of human sin. And there is our best clue to our question; human sin. All of humanity participates in a rebellion against God’s good purposes. It is that rebellion – both individual and corporate – that results in brokenness and hurt to others. The cross of Jesus is the central symbol of our faith because it reminds us that much happens in our world that is outside of God good desire for us. But God is in the world and, through the cross, seeks to reclaim this world stained and broken by sin
            The God of love is not absent in this world filled with bad news. The cross demonstrates that God is right in the middle of it. More, the cross powerfully reminds us that even in the midst of our active rebellion, even while we are sinners, God dies for us. Who does that? Who dies for someone who is hurling their worst behavior at you? This Holy Week we are given that answer once again.