There is nothing really magical about the flip of the calendar, but it does seem that moving from one year into the next affords us a good opportunity to reflect on the past and to anticipate the future. In particular, I find that I am in several meetings in early January where various groups are seeking to discern God’s direction in 2011.
For example, yesterday I was involved in a day-long retreat with the Directors of our Conference Center staff, along with David V.W. Owen, who is Executive Assistant to the Bishop. While our group realizes that we do not make all of the decisions for the Annual Conference, we are in many ways the “stewards” of the decisions made at Annual Conference and are called to help lead and move the conference forward in the ways it has voted. We spent our time looking at the Jim Collins’ book Good to Great and asking ourselves the tough questions that Collins raises. In particular, Collins says that “good is the enemy of great” – when we become satisfied and comfortable with just being a good church, a good person, or a good mission. We are called to continue growing toward excellence or greatness.
Other groups are having similar meetings, planning sessions, and retreats to move toward the future. As I reflect upon all of this, I want to offer these thoughts about discerning God’s will for this New Year:
1. God’s will is usually best discovered in Christian community, not in solo experiences of prayer. Certainly we each need our own devotional time, and every individual Christian can be guided by God’s Holy Spirit. But in our Wesleyan tradition, we are reminded that God most often works through “conferencing” with other Christians. When we seek to discern God’s will by ourselves, without working together in a Christian community, we can fall into the temptation of believing that what we want is also what God’s wants for us. Having to share that discernment with others opens us to the possibility of having those thoughts challenged and expanded.
2. God’s will often involves challenge more than comfort. When I struggle to find God’s will on a particular issue, I often find that the “comfortable” or the “familiar” is very attractive, but it is not often where I will find God.
We live in a world where “comfort” and “preference” most often guide people’s decisions. That is understandable, but it is seldom the way to God’s will for our lives. As I reflect on my life and ministry, of course I have enjoyed those times when I have been comfortable, but I have grown the most during those times which were challenging.
Bishop Reuben Job once put that to me in an even more profound way. We were in the same Covenant Group in the Council of Bishops where I had shared about a decision I needed to make. He said, “Whenever you face a choice of two paths, choose the one where you see the shadow of the Cross.”
3. God’s presence is intimately and completely joined with God’s will. Or to put it another way, when we are obedient to God’s will we also discover God’s presence to lead us. When we do not sense God’s presence, it may be due to our lack of obedience. If we are not being faithful to God’s will as we know it now, how in the world will we possibly discover God’s new will for us?
To be more blunt: before we look ahead to the New Year and prepare to seek and follow God’s will, we may need to look back to the last year and confess those places where we knew God’s will but were not obedient. Perhaps only then will God choose to reveal God’s will for the New Year.
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This whole business of discerning God’s will for the New Year is so much larger than simply making the usual kinds of New Year’s resolutions that so often fail. As one writer has said, “Many people look forward to the new year for a new start on old habits.” Lest we fall into that trap, we need to take seriously how we discern God’s will.
I hope you have a Happy New Year that is filled with God’s presence and follows God’s direction.