When I visited my grandfather’s church in Corpus Christi, Texas a few years back, there was a pastor named Bubba who announced one day from the pulpit that he’d had a dream from God. He described this dream in way more detail than any dreams I ever remembering having. He then laid out a plan for an elaborate outreach and prayer ministry. This public unveiling of Bubba’s vision from God was the first communication about it that he had made to the church. He had not talked to the deacons or anybody else prior to sharing it with the whole assembled congregation. A few months later, there was a new pastor in the pulpit at First Baptist Corpus Christi.
It’s generally the case that more “sophisticated” Christians ridicule pastors like Bubba who claim to hear voices or see visions from God. “Sophisticated” Christians don’t have visions from God; they have good ideas that are rational and creative and practical. They might give God “credit” for their good ideas since it’s theologically proper to do so, but these ideas don’t come from voices in the wind or blinding lights; they come from deductively using the reason that is God’s basic gift to humanity.
I inhabit the worlds of Bubba the Texas preacher and “sophisticated” Christianity simultaneously. For example, I have had several experiences in my life where I (may) have spoken in tongues, but I am unwilling to own those experiences as the expression of a genuine spiritual gift because the “sophisticated” side of me cynically deconstructs them to death, even though one of those times, something inexplicable happened, which I’m scared to call a miracle. Sometimes when I pray, I really do ask God questions that I fully expect to have answered in very explicit terms, whether it’s through a thought in my head or a Bible verse or the advice of a friend. Other times when I pray, it feels more like I’m engaging in a coping strategy in which I “center” myself and make peace with whatever is troubling me.
This sort of double-identity impacts how I understand what it means to seek the will of God. I have been facing perhaps the most difficult decision of my pastoral career this week, which culminates a discernment process that has lasted about two months. The discernment process has included the same kind of logical deduction, practical conversations, and decision trees that characterize decision-making in the secular world. I have been meeting with a committee that has shared in this practical aspect of the discernment with me.
My discernment has also involved a lot of prayer and fasting on my part. I fast every Monday and walk around a local lake as sort of a weekly meeting with God. My conversation for the past month has involved reading a section of Psalm 119 or perhaps a few pages of Thomas Merton or Alexander Schmemann, journaling furiously, and listening to the silence as I walk, which is actually pregnant with what I feel like I know to be the voice of God. I don’t know how to put into words the experience of God’s presence that I have felt. It varies in intensity, but there have been days when I really am filled with an indescribable joy, and a fairly boring lake with a huge ugly train trestle behind it looks more beautiful than the fjords of Norway or the Swiss Alps.
In any case, as part of my weekly conversation with God this Monday, I came to what I thought was a conclusion about the discernment process and I really thought I heard God’s voice speaking to me and leaving me with complete clarity and peace about what He had to say. Then when I went to meet with my committee to make our decision on Monday night, my committee (or God speaking through them) said something completely different. I’m not sure what to do with this. If I were a pastor like Bubba, I might say, “I’m sorry guys, but God told me what to do and that’s all there is to it.” But I don’t have the self-assurance to say something like that, partly because I get cynical when I hear other people make claims about what God has told them to do and partly because it’s such a significant claim to make that I tremble before it. Also I am very much committed to the belief that God speaks to me through other people.
Thus I am agonizing this week over the will of God. I have physically been torn up inside by this process (I won’t say any more about it than that). I know that the world ridicules leaders who agonize. We’re supposed to be decisive, shooting from the hip and not looking back. But I don’t just want to be able to say that I did what made logical sense or what spoke to my heart; I want to follow the will of God. I covet your prayers that all would become clear and, even if it’s not clear, that I would be faithful to whatever God reveals.