Henk Medema

Leadership & Discerning God's Will

This is a guestblog written by the Rev. Elizabeth Papazoglakis. We heard in the reading from the book of Acts, “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias.” Casting lots for decisions, especially in the Church, may raise the eyebrows of some. When I was a young child I had a Cootie game. It was the body of a bug and you added body parts to complete the cootie by rolling dice. My maternal grandparents lived next door and we were not allowed to bring the Cootie game to their house because it had dice! If I had been a better scripture scholar back then I would have reminded them that the Urim and Thummin that were used by the priests in Moses’ day were basically dice. Priests had a pocket in the ephod, part of the priest’s vestments, and the pocket containing the Urim and Thummim were worn over the heart. These devices were used by the priests when asking for divine guidance. The casting of lots is mentioned at least twenty-four times in the Hebrew Scriptures. While Tom was in Egypt, 10 days before I arrived in late March, Pope Shenouda III died. He was 88 years old and had some significant health problems so his death was not a surprise. The manner in which the Coptic Orthodox Church selects its successor is very interesting. After 40 days of mourning, which ended on April 25th, nominations are made. The qualifications are that the person be a monk who is at a minimum 40 years of age, who has spent 15 years or more in his religious order, and should hold the rank of at least bishop and must hold other responsibilities such as education, youth, social services or the like other than simply the responsibility for a diocese. Those qualified to vote will assemble and hold the election until the roster contains only three candidates. The Sunday following the election of the three candidates, the names of the three will be placed on the altar and a blind-folded child no older than 9 years will select one of the names. The name of the person selected will become the next Pope of the Coptic Church. Would this process be considered, casting lots? (pause) If the nominations were made after prayerful consideration with a heart open for God’s will rather than the will of the one nominating, is this a holy means of selection? Does this process leave the matter to the will of God or is this just random chance? (pause) How do we know the will of God? This incidence of casting lots from the book of Acts is the last that we hear about it in the New Testament. Next week the Holy Spirit descends on the believers and after that occurs, God’s will is determined through the power of the Holy Spirit. If the candidates for Pope of the Coptic Church are determined through the power of the Holy Spirit is it acceptable to cast lots from the three discerned candidates for the final decision on a pope? We have a big election coming up in Wisconsin on June 5th and then a nationwide election on November 6th. How might we feel about this process if we believed that all candidates were selected through the power of the Holy Spirit and then lots were cast for the final outcome? (pause) I doubt that we Americans would find that process acceptable AT ALL! In Egypt, whether Christian or Muslim every decision that you make, no matter how mundane, is prefaced with the words, insha’ allah, if God wills it. If we make plans for coffee or dinner as we firm the plans we would say, “insha’ allah”, if God wills it. In other words, God’s will reigns. We can make all the plans that we want but God is in charge, we are not. So, how DO we discern God’s will? I am sure that most people have some established ways of making decisions but is that the same as discerning God’s will? Do we ask God about decisions in our lives, big and small? Do we consider what God wants us to do? I have some suggestions that we might consider for discerning God’s will. My first suggestion is through prayer. I don’t just mean talking TO God, prayer also includes LISTENING to God. Pray and pour your heart out and then be quiet. Listen. Perhaps we should listen longer than we talk? We can never know God’s will if we don’t ask and if we ask then we must listen to hear the answer. Next is through reading and meditating on Holy Scripture, which is also a form of prayer. Holy Scripture is the divine WORD of God and it is as relevant today as when it was inspired. The ordination vows state that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Why wouldn’t we consult Holy Scripture if it holds such TRUTH? When we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the stories found in Holy Scripture as adults, we might be surprised to find how relevant they are for us today. Perhaps reading sermons from the great preachers of our past, books about the lives of the saints, martyrs, and the giants of our faith and how they discerned God’s will would give us clues about how to discern God’s will in our own lives. I personally have found that God often speaks through others. As Christians we are called into community and we are on this journey together to walk beside and support one another. At times people have not known that what he/she said at a particular time was EXACTLY what I needed to hear. God used messengers throughout scripture. Some of those messengers were angels and some were folks just like you and me. God can and does speak through others. We should listen. Those on the inside of Church “stuff” usually think “ordination” when we hear the word “discernment”. Our youngest daughter, Sarah, was part of a discernment group at her Episcopal church that met for over two years. The structure of the group was rooted in the Clearness Committee from the Quaker tradition. This particular group, of which Sarah was a part, was comprised of males and females, with ages that ranged from early 20’s to mid 70’s. Members of the group were discerning various things and over the course of those two years the issues being discerned changed. Members were discerning vocations, relationships, relocation, healthcare decisions, and financial issues to name a few. How wonderful was that to meet and pray together in community and just discuss life issues, listen, pray, and support one another! We can discern God’s will when we gather for common worship. God speaks to us in our liturgy. God is working in and through and around us all the time. We must pay attention because we could, and probably do, miss God in our very midst. We never know how God is using our decisions or the decisions of others. After Pope Shenouda III was enthroned as Pope of the Coptic Church he was a vocal critic of then President Anwar Sadat over his handling of an Islamic insurgency in the 1970s and Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. After a series of protests that led to Pope Shenouda’s arrest, President Sadat exiled the Pope to his monastery, in the Wadi-Natrun near Cairo. On September 3, 1981, Pope Shenouda began his exile. He chose to stay in his cell in the desert rather than in the Monastery of St. Bishoy. The Abbot Bishop of St. Bishoy, from which Pope Shenouda was elected pope, asked the Pope to return with him to the monastery rather than staying out in the desert in his cell. The Pope said that he would be fine. The abbot was insistent that the Pope should return to the monastery. The Pope insisted that he would be fine in his cell. Finally, the abbot said, “If you are not going to return with me then I will stay with you in your cell.” Pope Shenouda said, “This was my cell for 15 years. Why do you need to stay?” Finally, the pope surrendered to the abbot and returned with him to the monastery. In the middle of that same night, armed forces from the Egyptian Army raced out into the desert and circled the cell that they assumed held Pope Shenouda. The intention was to contain the pope in his cell and starve him out in the desert with no food or water. Since 1973, following the crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, Egypt has celebrated Armed Forces Day each year on October 6th. On October 6th of 1981, while Egypt was celebrating Armed Forces Day, Pope Shenouda remained in exile. Part of the celebration included a military parade and, as was usual for national celebrations, a representative from the Coptic Orthodox Church was invited to be present on the Presidential platform. Since Pope Shenouda was in exile, the Coptic Church was represented by Bishop Samuel. It was during this celebration that President Anwar Sadat and eleven others were gunned down. Bishop Samuel was one of the 11 killed. I am not saying that it was God’s will that Bishop Samuel or President Sadat, for that matter, were killed. We are given free will and we can act in accordance with God’s will or not. It is our choice. But I do believe that God can and does use all events in our lives, those good and those bad, so that His name may be glorified. We never know how God may be using us or the events in our lives for his greater glory. What Sadat meant for evil, God used for good. In the 31 years that followed under Pope Shenouda, the Coptic Church became strong and many people were strengthened in their faith and many came to know Jesus as Lord. Pope Shenouda wrote 101 books, consecrated more than 80 metropolitans and bishops, ordained over 600 priests, developed a vibrant youth ministry that is still alive and healthy today, planted 96 churches in the United States moving the number of Coptic Churches in America from 4 to 100, and planted mission churches throughout the world. So, should we go back to using the Urim and Thummim or casting lots? It may be more in accordance with God’s will than some of the other means that we use to make decisions. Was God’s will done through the casting of lots in the selection of Pope Shenouda? I believe that it was. What is important in all decisions is to keep God first in our hearts and our minds. When we seek his will, we are actually responding to God’s movement in us to seek him. The first verse of a hymn in our hymnal puts it best, “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. It was not I that found, O savior true; no, I was found of thee”. May God’s will be done, not only in the selection of the next Coptic Pope in Egypt but also in our lives as we each seek to find and follow God’s will.

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