In 2 weeks, I’ll be embarking on a learning adventure for my Leadership of Global Perspectives Doctorate of Ministry program. This adventure will require full sensory attentiveness to the fast-paced cosmopolitan city of London, as well as the historically nostalgic streets Oxford. While I’m giddy to visit both, Oxford has captivated my imagination ever since my seminary professor stood before the class, in his argyle sweater vest, spiffy bow tie, and round-rimmed spectacles, sharing snapshots of his educational experience while at Oxford.
Since its mythological inception by King Alfred the Great in 886, and its first official name documentation in 912, Oxford has grown and morphed into what are now 38 private colleges and six permanent private halls. For over one thousand years, Oxford has weathered invasion, corruption, affluence, and poverty, while becoming a world-renowned academic institution and a tourist destination for millions. From the content within the classroom to the architecture that houses those classes, Oxford’s contributions to its community and the world are remarkable.
Kings, mathematicians, writers, and great reformers of the Christian faith have walked its halls and sat in its pubs, dreaming and discerning new ways of leading others, contributing to society, and communicating the Gospel. Oxford greats of the Christian faith include Richard Kilby and Richard Brett, the two main English translators for the King James Bible; John Wesley and George Whitefield, the founders of Methodism; and literary masters Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S Lewis.
As I consider this “great cloud of witnesses,” I have to wonder how often they sat in the dark of night, alone, wondering what their purpose was? How many times did they cry out to God asking for revelation of God’s will in their daily lives? In what ways did the events surrounding them spur them into action? Who did they trust to speak into their lives to help guide them along the divine path that was planned for them since before time began? In short, what did discernment look like in their lives?
Henri Nouwen, one of the greats of the modern contemplative movement, describes discernment as “faithful living and listening to God’s love and direction so we can fulfill our individual calling and shared mission.”On the surface, discernment sounds like a walk in the park. But if it were easy, then within my ministry context, the top questions heard would not be:
“How do I know God’s will?”
“How do I know if it’s really God speaking to me?”
“What is God’s purpose for my life?”
These questions have plagued those that love God for millennia. But as a follow up to those questions, we would do well to ask, “What does faithful living and listening” entail?
Faithful living and listening takes intentional effort and sustained attentiveness to the presence of God in our days. Key spiritual disciplines, such as corporate worship, silence and solitude, prayer and meditation all play an important role in developing a posture of deep listening for God, rather than constantly speaking to God.Noticing God’s voice through faithful writers and spiritual companions provides other opportunities for discernment, as does noticing events in our local and global contexts.
Twenty years of desiring to faithfully follow Jesus have affirmed the importance of such efforts in my days. But as I sit here in the quiet of the night, after a very full week, I find myself exhausted. Since the start of school, I have struggled to find my rhythm, to clear out spaces where silence and solitude prevail. I need those spaces like I need air in my lungs, water in my body, or laughter in my soul. Lately the days have felt rushed as I try to keep up with schedules and responsibilities. In the hurry of the next, I am often missing the gift of the now. I’m afraid that by the time I arrive in London and Oxford, coming fresh off another full week, that I will be even more spent. I really do not want to arrive in that condition.
I want to arrive rested and ready to take in all of the goodness of God through learning, exploring, and engaging with new friends. I want to be open and ready to receive the wonder of a city filled with new sights and sounds and smells. I want to embrace the tension of what is and what is to come as I embark upon a new chapter of life. I want to be shaped by the words I read and the conversations I hear, including the echoes of wisdom of the past and prophetic proclamations of the future.
In order for these desires to happen, I have to do what I suspect countless others in the “great cloud of witnesses” have done throughout generations; I have to say no to the busy and yes to the purposeful.
I have to reacquaint myself with the un-comfortableness that comes from practicing stillness. I have to center down into the Presence of God and remember who I am, to claim my belovedness, and to delight in God’s glory and grace. I have to trust that in doing so the details of the days will fall into place and direction will unfold. I have to know deep in my spirit that my primary vocation is abiding in Jesus, and at the end of the day, if I am apart from Him, even if my to do list is marked with little check marks of progress, I will have achieved nothing. Absolutely nothing. For the ability to discern that truth and more, I am grateful.