God’s call meets us at the intersection of scripture and real life, especially in worship. There are some pretty simple reminders of what God calls all of us to do – like “love God, your neighbor as yourself” and “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” But these are not simple instructions, like “click the button on top of the iPod to turn it on,” such that once we figure it out, the manual gets tossed. They are words to return to and live with in each new day. The words “love your neighbor” may bring to mind someone struggling at work one day, your spouse the next. B. Brock says it this way: “the believer who clings to the commands is not obeying them as moral maxims but is constantly being trained through them to listen to God in new and historically unique contexts.”
So what command or part of scripture is most applicable to a given situation? That’s easy – it’s the one I can find that best promotes my personal agenda! L. Johnson points out some specific principles or guidelines Paul – for one – lays down for church deliberation: “Love builds up.” (1st Corinthians 3, 8, 12-14) But on this, I also like D. Bonhoeffer’s thought that worship itself is the place where we listen for God’s word in scripture – partly, I would guess, because we don’t have control over what text the preacher is using (especially if it’s the lectionary). The “renewing of your mind” (Romans 12 – also Phil 2) would presumably come about only through ongoing participation in worship and scripture – whereas prooftexting needs no such renewal. I am drawn to a common word of advice to churches: that those involved in a decision take time to think of a passage or image from scripture that would seem to connect with the situation. Granted, the passage I choose may have more to do with me than with God, but that’s part of the process! B. Wannenwetsch points out that the “testing” of discernment is a testing of ourselves and our ideas, not a testing of God.
If God’s voice is still active, it comes not just on the words of the page but in real human lives and voices – indeed, through prophecy! (See 1st Corinthians 14) So discerning God’s call doesn’t involve simply listening to the text, but to people’s experiences and stories, to the rhythm of daily life itself (Luther says in his lectures on Genesis that all created things are “words” from God). Luke Timothy Johnson connects the New Testament idea of prophecy to our experience of personal testimony. He points out the important decisions in the New Testament were made not by quoting scripture – at least at first – but narrating “what happened” to Paul (Acts 9:26ff) or to Peter (Acts 11). Granted, these experiences again need to be discerned / tested by the community in the light of scripture’s story and the Gospel (with the willingness to say “that’s not of God!”). But the personal testimony of someone connected to the decision and situation can speak powerfully and lead forward.
God doesn’t way for us to pray before God speaks. Prayer isn’t so much a method to listen for some new message, but more how we respond to what God has already said, by way of further questions, listening, discussion, trying things out. All of this responding could be said to be “prayer.” A person shares a Biblical image or remembers something heard in worship, another person entrusts us with an experience. “Prayer” means allowing these witnesses to ground and frame the decisions that follow. Even when a decision is made you could say the action itself is a prayer: done not in certainty “that I am doing God’s will,” but in hope that “God’s will be done” even despite ourselves – that our sins will be forgiven. The conversation with God continues, the course may change!