"With Sober Judgement"

August 15, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Romans 12:1-8

            In this magnificent passage of scripture, words to which we seem to turn again and again, the apostle Paul calls us to think about ourselves "with sober judgement." Please note, the word is not "somber," as if we’re to examine our lives along dark, gloomy, and depressing lines. Some think that’s how God wants us to see ourselves, but that’s not what scripture says, at least not this passage. No, we are called to "sober judgement." That is, to put it in other words, God calls us to see ourselves through the eyes of "spiritual realism."

            Now, those two words may not seem to fit together very well. After all, "spiritual" is one of those highflying, somewhat vague terms that everybody seems to be excited about nowadays. The self-help section of the bookstore, for instance, is full of texts about "spirituality," written from just about every conceivable viewpoint. Most everybody in our society seems now to agree that "spiritual" is good, but there isn’t much agreement on what that word actually means. "Realism," on the other hand, is very down to earth. To "be real" is to have common sense, to get your head out of the clouds, to see what needs to be done and do it.

            No, the words "spiritual" and "realism" don’t seem to fit together all that well, do they? Can you have your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground at the same time? "Spiritual realism" is sort of like another phrase Paul used: "living sacrifice." Strictly speaking, a sacrifice is an offering that loses its existence in the process of being offered. A sacrificial animal is killed on an altar. A grain offering is burned. Nowadays, when we speak of sacrifice we are thinking of something released, let go, given up. It ceases to exist for us. Money given sacrificially, for instance, is something we’re not sure we can live without, but we release it anyway. To be sacrificial in offering our time or abilities is similar. In a sense, these things die for us. We can’t take them back. We can’t hold on to them. They have left our hands.

            Now, tell me, how then can something be a "living" sacrifice? It’s an oxymoron. Those two words just don’t fit together. And yet, ask anyone who has ever given up time, an expensive commodity in this day and age, to help another person, and you’ll find someone for whom the phrase "living sacrifice" makes perfect sense. Yes, what you offer dies to you, but it rises from those ashes and lives on as something much greater. They’ll tell you that they have received so much more than they ever thought they sacrificially gave up.

            Now, the phrase "spiritual realism" is my own rendition of what Paul is calling for in the third through eighth verses of Romans, chapter 12. "Don’t get lost in the clouds in evaluating your abilities," he says. "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think." Be sober serious. Be real. At the same time, however, be sure you see what God is doing in and around you... Wait just a minute! The realist in us just did a back-flip. When we start talking about what God is doing, we’re entering that vague territory of the spirit. We don’t "see" God, after all. The proverbial "man from Missouri" who needs "to see it in order to believe it" finds himself at the brink of a cliff here, one foot on solid ground, and one on thin air.

            "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction (the "evidence") of things not seen." So wrote the author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews (11:1). We’re talking "spiritual realism" here. That’s what we mean by the word "discernment," which is what this passage of scripture is calling out in us. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect." (12:2)

            Now, as I understand it - and, as always, you are free to differ with me on this - such "spiritual realism" or "discernment" always has a somewhat tentative nature to it. It is rare that you will ever hear me say "this is what the Lord is doing here." At most I may say, "I wonder if this is what God is doing here." I use the word "wonder," however, not in a "wishy-washy, gee-wizicurs" sort of way. I connect it to the word "awe," realizing that when it comes to things unseen, I stand in awe of my Creator, Lord, and Savior, whose will, whose purpose, whose thoughts and ways are, as Isaiah once said, "higher than" my thoughts and ways (55:8-9).

            At camp last week, we tried to provide the children with something concrete to help them pray together during the morning devotional time. My co-director came up with the idea of using a rope with 3 knots in it, as reminders of what to pray for, 3 being (of course) a very biblical number. That left us with trying to figure out what those 3 things might be. The format I learned in college: "adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication" (which spell out the word ACTS), not only was above the heads of that age group, it also involved 4 points, not 3.

            Now, a key scripture for the week was, "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." (Mt. 18:20) The word "two" has 3 letters, we figured, and so we came up with a format for prayer that involved, Thanking God for everything, Wondering what God would be up to that day, and praying for Others... How often do we open ourselves up to wonder what God is doing in, around, and beyond us on a given day? Not just in the "big" stuff, but in all things. How often do we really wonder what God is about in the lives of those who surround us? To say that we all have different gifts, is to imply that the great giver is alive and active. Are we discerning what’s happening, in awe and wonder? Are we being "spiritual realists?"

            For the remainder of this message, let me engage in some "sober judgement," and look back at the past year and (if there’s time) ahead to the next in the life of our church. Summer may be a better time of year to do so than January 1st. Furthermore, since I pulled together this message on my birthday last Friday, this is the beginning of another year of my life. Humor me. I will, no doubt, not touch on everything that could be considered. My vision only goes so far, but that’s why we are the church together. You see things I may not. As we go along, you may be running your own "sober judgement" of the past year in your life. If that takes you far afield of where I’m headed, go for it. I believe God’s Word to us is much bigger than whatever I say.

            As I look back, it seems that the high points (of which there were many) also involved times of struggle. For instance, Homecoming was a mountaintop experience, wasn’t it? We came full circle in having Paul Groff, our first full time pastor, and his family with us again. You remember, don’t you, that we had two homecomings that week? Carl Simmons died on the Friday before, and we buried him the next Wednesday. It was, yes, a time for grief - but it was also a celebration of Carl’s life and God’s resurrection promise.

            We leaned heavily on that promise this year, as we let go of Edna Breidenbaugh, as well as Debbie Hildebrand. I can still hear Mark Lane sing the song he composed, entitled "A Great Life," for his grandmother-in-law’s funeral a year ago Tuesday. For Debbie and us, September to March went too quickly, but along the way - through anointing and baptism - there seemed a rich grace that flowed through the struggle. As a church, you stepped up to the plate and were there when you needed to be. Thank you! We are his body.

            Another mountaintop was the day we joined Bonnie and Bruce as husband and wife. A very simple, no frills wedding. Afterward, though, I thought - "this is how it should be." Weddings have become a big industry nowadays, and it’s easy to lose track of what’s real. We spend huge amounts of money on the first day of marriages, half of which fail, if we are to believe a recent study. We need to bring weddings back into the church, and I don’t just mean the building. Thank you, Bruce and Bonnie for who you help us to be. That day was also blessed by the meal which the Hildebrand family prepared. The food was great, but even greater was what lay behind it. Amid the thanksgiving I heard the melody of resurrection loud and clear. Did you?

            Yes, the high points of the year were intimately connected to the struggles. Such is life. We went through a spurt of births this Spring, saying hello to these precious packages God has entrusted into our hands for but a season. Add to that the new faces among us, just as precious in the eyes of God, even though just a bit older. You know who you are. We look forward to getting to know you better. On the other hand, along the way we also are having our share of farewells - persons we’ve come to know and love moving on to new locations. God be with you...

            With the ending of a program such as "Mothers Together," or "Volleyball," I wonder what new things God has in store? Furthermore, what "champions," as Brad Kay used to call them, are just over the horizon - persons whom God is calling to be leaders for these new possibilities, gifted by God in such ways as to make things happen? It’s amazing when we see it taking place, and move with God, isn’t it. Just since January we’ve witnessed several of our young adults step forward as youth leaders, a team blessed with a wide variety of gifts.

            Example. The Nurture commission has been talking about working on our youth mentor program, about extending it into the junior youth. We had the resources. We were just missing the "champion." Well, along the way Gina Miller said "yes" to teaching Sunday School, thinking she’d be with the little tots. Instead, she was paired with the older ones. Unsure if she was cut out for this, she went ahead and discovered she loved it. Furthermore, having experienced a solid mentor relationship as a youth herself, she approached the junior youth with the idea, and then talked with us about it. We couldn’t believe the answer to prayer that just "happened." Last Tuesday Gina very competently trained a group of adults for the task. I’m coming close to breaking my own rule about outright saying, "this is what the Lord is doing here." I sure am filled with wonder and gratitude to God. How about you?

            Well, I’m running out of time. I can’t hit everything, like the work projects that have grasped Izzy and Dottie this year, or Esther Showalter’s reunion with her Dad (a story still in process, along with many other ongoing stories being lived out right here among us, evidence of things unseen - God at work). I know I’ll get in trouble for not mentioning everything, but you’re the ones who need to complete this time of sober judgement, this spiritual realism, this process of discernment. To what is God calling us in the year ahead?

            I had hoped to spend more time this message in looking ahead, but I guess the topic was too big for one day. I do have some glimpses of God is calling us toward but, to be honest, these vision "glimpses are mostly in the "wonder" stage. Moreover, a year ago I had my list of possibilities for the months ahead, but most of what I just mentioned wasn’t on that list. Sort of makes you... well, "wonder," doesn’t it?...

            Let’s ground that "wonder" on a firm foundation. Shall we stand and sing?

1999Peter L. Haynes

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