Sunday, June 21, 2020
Making tough decisions
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Recto
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
As the Tuesday morning bible study began one person remarked, “I really was uncomfortable with this gospel passage, it didn’t sound like Jesus. So I went back to my bible to see if those words were really in red.” Now for those of you who may not have some of the evangelical or Baptist background many bibles print the words of Jesus in red. I must admit this is one of those gospels where I end the proclamation with the “The gospel of the Lord” and you reply with “Praise to you Lord Christ” and may wonder praise to you for what?
What do we do with the challenging passages we have before us today? Abraham has to choose between his two sons and ends up sending Hagar and Ishmael off into the dessert with a little food and skin of water because Sarah is jealous. We can tell from the passage that this broke his heart and divided his family. Jesus speaks of bringing a sword and not peace that will break up families. So as Martin Smith says in his Co-creators with God talk I quoted last week, “what are we to make of this?”
First a teachable moment. We need to remember that Matthew is writing a gospel for his community and is writing at least 30 or 40 years after Jesus has been crucified and resurrected. The Romans have destroyed the city of Jerusalem in the revolt in the late 60’s of the first century. Matthew’s followers are in effect a minority report in Judaism at the time. The Romans do not like them and neither to many of the mainline Jewish authorities. They are a threat to the power of what is left of the temple leadership after the temple has been destroyed.
There is a fairly well-respected school of thought that says this is Matthew speaking to his followers about what is going on at the time of the writing of the gospel and not a single speech by Jesus. Rather it is a compilation of several different sayings of Jesus that Matthew has rolled into one message that speaks to a very real need of his community sometime around 75 CE. This tells them that the resistance and persecutions that they are experiencing are to be expected. This is not the first time that Jesus has spoken of others as his family and distanced himself from his own family. There is the time when his family is trying to persuade him to come away with them and he looks at the disciples and says “These are my brothers and sisters.”
Sometimes Jesus presents us with difficult choices, sometimes God does and sometimes the world does as well. In our world today there are many challenging decisions that we have to make. The discussion and planning about when to resume in person worship is just such a challenging decision. Now the vestry and I with the blessing of the diocese have made the decision to resume in person worship July 12 with a single service for our High School Graduates, vestry members and those who serve as ushers and greeters as the first people to attend. This is to give our graduates at least something to celebrate in what has been a very tough year. This also will give those who will help our services run have a chance to experience and tweak the preparations that we have made for the rest of you to attend. Then we will offer two services July 19. More details will come out in the next couple of weeks. Yet there is no single good solution and no way that everyone will be happy.
Then there are those issues around racial tension that is rampant in our country. These challenge us to stop and consider how we are to respond, how does God desire us to respond? Again, there is no single answer that satisfies everyone.
So how do we make those tough decisions, the ones that may bring us into conflict with friends and family or especially those decisions that no matter what you decide, somebody will be angry or disappointed with you? St. Ignatius actually has much to say about prayerful discernment. Ignatius suggests a wonderful balance between analytical thinking and prayerful discernment. I have scheduled a post on the church Facebook page this morning to a website that goes into more detail than I have time for this morning. This is a site run Loyola press and is an excellent description1.
People often ask me how can I know God’s will? This approach is one way to explore that question. I learned this process many years ago with an Ignatian spiritual director. Here is a quick summary based on the information on the website. I encourage you to go online and read the full article. So bear with me as I switch into teacher mode.
Identify the decision to be made or the issue to be resolved: The issue should be practical and real, something you have the right to make a decision about. You need to have or obtain the necessary information.
Formulate the issue in a proposal: Make it a positive and concrete choice, be specific if possible. State it in a way the God initially seems to be drawing you.
Pray for openness to God’s will and for freedom from prejudgment and addictions: Ask God for the inner peace to discern. Seek out a spiritually mature person who can help. Discuss what obstacles could be limiting your freedom including your own projections, psychological tendencies, draws of power and prestige anything that can taint your clear thinking. The website lists several good bible passages to use to pray over.
Gather all the necessary information: Make sure you have all the data that you need. That by the way is one of the challenges in dealing with our current health crisis, data is not that reliable or consistent. Discuss the matter with someone else who is sensitive to Christian values. With the response to the virus this has been the vestry and staff of the parish along with the guidance of the diocese.
Repeat the third step: Pray for openness to God’s will. Look at the alternatives and ask, which alternative will give most glory to God and be expressive of your own deepest self, your authentic self? What Richard Rohr calls your true or God centered self.
State the reason for and all the reasons against each alternative in the proposal. If you have an either I do X or I do Y, list the advantages and disadvantages of both. Remember to start this process with prayer!
Evaluate all of the advantages and disadvantages. Take a calm look at what you came up with in the previous step then go back to step 3, PRAY for openness and freedom.
Observe the direction of your will while reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages: What do your desires tell you about the choices. These will be influenced by the Holy Spirit if you have soaked this process in prayer. If the decision still seems cloudy, look to see if any disordered attachments or selfish desires are pulling at you. Pray that the Spirit will remove these.
Ask for God to give you feelings of consolation about the preferred option: This is the third overall step in the process. The first was asking the Spirit to transform your thoughts, the second was to transform your desires and now you are asking the Spirit to stir up feelings of consolation. These can include joy, enthusiasm, deeper faith, greater hope and trust, greater love, confidence or courage. These feelings of consolation accompany your desires when they are clearly pointed toward loving and serving God, others, and your true self. They are very different from the feelings that accompany your desires when they are influenced by disordered attachments aimed only at your selfish ways. If you have mixed feelings than return to step 3 and pray. Now a feeling of consolation would be where Abraham felt that God had reassured him that Ishmael would also be the father of a great nation and that this was all part of God’s desire.
Trust God and make your decision, even if you are not certain about it.
Confirm the decision.
Live with the decision for a while to see whether your thoughts, desires, and feelings continue to support it. If not, new data is needed, and the process must be redone.
Yes, this is a long process, but worth every minute for those important decisions. In my own experience I have taken a particular issue especially a major one and gone off on an 8-day silent retreat and used that time away with a spiritual director to make major life decisions.
This is the process that I use for big or important decisions and I offer this as a gift to you during these incredibly trying times. As with Jesus, this does not mean that everyone will welcome your decision nor will everyone agree with your decision. But you can be relatively confident that having made your decision with the input of the Holy Spirit it will be the right decision. What makes this process truly different is that it is soaked in prayer, both the asking for guidance and the listening to the Spirit.
Note to those reading this sermon: If you want to learn more about Ignatian Spirituality I recommend exploring the website mentioned earlier or purchase the book by Fr. James Martin “The Jesuit Guide to almost everything : A Spirituality for Real Life.”