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Friday, March 30, 2012

spiritual discernment in community

Listening to the Word and Spirit in Community
Council Discernment in the Presbytery of Charlotte, Spring 2012

What do you see? 
~Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church cemetery
At the Next conference, Theresa Cho shared the “Urban Legacy” process she is leading in the Presbytery of San Francisco to draw together the diverse city churches in conversation and discernment. Recently she has blogged about the follow-up to that first event. Inspired by her sharing of the process in San Francisco, I thought I would share some of the recent discernment process used by the Presbytery Council here in Charlotte. We are trying to lead our presbytery through what I have described as a financial, relational, and missional crisis [PDF].

We dedicated our March Council meeting to an extended (almost two hour) process of prayer, scripture, discernment, and discussion. What follows is the basic outline of what we did. My hope is that the Lord will use this to lead us in faithful directions.

“Letter to the Exiles”

Our group of about twenty-four (Council + staff) began by moving away from the table into groups of three. After an opening prayer, we read Jeremiah 29:1-14 in two different voices. Then, I read the passage in several sections as follows, with time for discussion in the groups:
Now these are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the court officials, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.) The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, saying, (Jeremiah 29:1-3)

Who all has been affected by this exile and what does ‘exile’ mean to you as a leader in the church? What from the past weighs upon you?

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’(Jeremiah 29:4-7)

What is God calling us to in the present – what does it mean for us to build, live, plant, eat, marry, reproduce, and multiply? For what shall WE seek and pray?

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. ‘For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord.(Jeremiah 29:8-9)

What must we watch out for in the present calling?

“For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. ‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’(Jeremiah 29:10-14)

In terms of our ‘hope’ and ‘future,” what is the place of waiting, faith, seeking, and finding?

We closed that time with some directed prayer, including periods of silent listening and “wa9iting on the Lord.” Next, our acting General Presbyter, Timm High, lead us in a similar discernment around the John 5:1-10 passage below:

“Do You Want to be Made Well?”
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. *** One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”  The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” (John 5:1-10, NRSV)
***(Other ancient authorities add, wholly or in part): waiting for the stirring of the water; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.

We read the passage first without the variant reading (v. 4), then another voice read with it. A number of observations were made, but in the context of our Council conversations, one thing that jumped out was the “technical change” nature of getting to the water when it was stirred up and the “adaptive change” of being willing to be healed, taking up the mat, and beginning to walk. (The additional adaptive leap of apparently breaking the Sabbath rules – and the subsequent pushback – was also noted.)

At the top of the post, I asked what you see in the picture. I think in many ways this is the question before us as a presbytery and as congregations.  Is it beautiful spring growth on a living tree or death marked by the gravestones?  May God give us eyes (and faith) to see what the Spirit is doing.

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