Decision trees (from Aug 16, 2015)

It seems like every time I go on study leave, something breaks. The worst was a rainy spring 8 years ago. I was at a spiritual direction retreat at Huron College in London, when the family room in our basement flooded. Through the magic of Skype, my wife could show me the indoor pond. It kind of put a damper on my time away.

In July, as I was preparing to go to a writing conference, our dishwasher quit. Fortunately, there was no flood. The dishwasher just stopped. The kind and helpful repair man said he could replace the computer circuit board, and bring the machine back to life, but the fix would cost more than a new dishwasher. There was no guarantee something else wouldn’t break or burst tomorrow.

Do you know what a decision tree looks like? Each question leads to new branches. If no, then what? If yes, then how? Each branch opens up new questions, and each answer leafs out to more choices.

I so hate relegating big hunks of plastic and steel to the landfill. It’s an awful legacy to leave the future. Once we got past that, we had to consider whether we replace the appliance, or do without. Two weeks of washing pots and cups and dishes settled that one. So then we climbed the next decision tree, and started swinging from branch to branch.

What brand? What price range? What features? Which vendor? Do we buy an extended warranty? How do we know we aren’t buying another big box we will end up tossing in a few years? Can we find one actually built in this country, or even on this continent? I resent that everything we buy comes from across at least one ocean. We burn fossil fuel to transport goods around the globe, and live in a place where no one seems to actually make anything anymore. Trying to find a way through this forest of decision trees was kind of paralyzing. It’s the real reason we did nothing about the problem for those two weeks when we were washing and drying everything by hand.

I know how fortunate I am to have these middle class, first world problems. The dishwasher dilemma is just an example of decisions we face all the time. Decisions that matter, and have faith implications- because what I throw away, what I keep, and how I spend money all have ripple effects. Decisions that require careful discernment, and prayer, and a genuine asking of the question, “What should I do?”

Talking about dishwashers is less likely to get me in hot water than talking about the federal election! In either case, we can’t just flip open our Bible, and look up, “What should I buy?” or “How should I vote?”

The Bible mostly doesn’t work that way. Even the parts with rules require interpretation, and many decisions we face are not explicitly covered. On the cover of the manual for our new dishwasher, there is a note about the manufacturer’s website, where you can read answers to frequently asked questions. This can be helpful, to learn from what others have experienced. If that doesn’t help, there is also a 1 800 number that allows you to talk to an actual person.

This morning’s line from The Lord’s Prayer is “Thy will be done”. How do we sort out what God would have us do? In my work as a minister and spiritual director, I am a little different from the person who answers the toll free line. I usually don’t have their answer, but try to help them discern the answer that God is offering.

A person on the verge of retirement may have questions about what will now give their life meaning. What will they do with their time? Are there new opportunities for them to do things to help others? Is it time to down-size, to move?

Someone between jobs may need help remembering there is more to them than paid work. Their question may be “God, who am I?”

A person who has suffered the loss of a loved one, or the end of a marriage, or who has survived serious illness may question God’s role in it all. They may wonder if there is something they must do, in response to recent events.

I often quote the Catholic monk and mystic, Thomas Merton. He believed we can discern things about what God would have us do. He trusted God’s love. He believed that God is with us, even when we feel unsure.

Merton wrote a prayer that offers a good starting place: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

God loves us, is interested in us, and wants the best for us. Even though God wants only good for us, God does not actually make us do anything. We always have choice. God is giving us hints and clues all the time, about how to be fair, how to be honest, how to take others into consideration, how to care for the earth, how to be generous.

Jewish rabbis say the whole world is Torah, which is another way to say God’s love letters are written everywhere, if we can only take time to read them. God can speak to us through things we see, hear, feel. Through the words in conversations, and through the words we read, in the Bible and other places. Through our day dreams, and night dreams, and in apparently random and idle thoughts. Through almost anything we can experience. Most of the time, the hints and clues we get from God will be subtle, and not literal. We will need to ponder them, to be contemplative

We need to slow ourselves down, breathe, and quiet ourselves down. I was talking with someone this week about how with modern technology, it is so easy to never have quiet. We can have music, or talking, or someone else’s story in a television show coming at us all time. We never have to be alone with our thoughts. This can happen so much we forget we have thoughts, and that our own company is a good thing.

Some people deliberately keep themselves occupied with external distractions, because their own thoughts and feelings make them uncomfortable. But it is actually worth listening to ourselves, and sorting through all the different messages and voices inside. It may be that some of the inner voices we have been trying to ignore or drown out just needed to be heard, and then can quiet down. Once we have heard them, we can be in a better space to listen for God.

When I help with week-long spiritual retreats, we build in at least one 24 hour period of silence. Most people are a little wary of that extended silence, at least the first time. After the first time, many look forward to doing it again. We have a moment of silence as we begin worship, to make room inside, to hear God.

It is good to practice quieting down, even when we don’t have a particular question for God. To take time each day, to just be. To sit quietly, and open ourselves to God’s presence. To let the distractions of the world, and inside of ourselves fall away. To just be, and remember again how good it is, to be alive, and to be loved by God. To know that whatever else may be going on, God is with us.

If we take time each day for even a few minutes of quiet remembering that we are loved by God, and that God is with us, then some of the urgency of getting an answer, of knowing exactly what we should do, may melt away. We can remember that we are not alone in anything God has for us to do. God is in it with us.

We can remember that we will do the best we can, that God will help us, and that the best we can do, is all that is asked. That’s the spirit we need to be in, to get a sense of God’s hopes and dreams for us.

In that spirit, we can use the gifts and tools God has given us. We can use our intellect, to collect information. We can sort out what we actually know, from what we think we know, and from what we fear, or worry about.

We can listen to our own hearts, to hear what love is telling us. What would be the most loving thing to do?

From a calm and loving place, trusting that God is with us, we might ask ourselves:

-does anything I have learned from the Bible or from church help me here?

-what does my own logic and reason tell me? What seems sensible?

-what does my conscience say? Will I regret the choice, one way or another?

-How do I feel if I imagine having made the decision, one way, or another? Do I feel peace, joy, or love? If I feel anxious or angry or joyless, when I imagine a certain decision, what does that tell me?

As people of faith community, we can take comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our efforts to know, and to do God’s will. We can help and encourage each other. We can talk with each other, and if we have an idea about God’s hopes and dreams that we are not sure about, we can seek counsel from each other. We can remind each other that we are not alone, and that God is with us. Amen

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