Unless we’re really obtuse, it’s pretty hard to miss the invitation to listen to God when He speaks to us in overt way. After all, what took place with Bill (as I described in Part 1) was very direct. I would have been a fool to ignore God’s voice in that moment.
How, though, do we catch what God is doing when He wants to speak to us in more subtle ways?
I learned this lesson during the very first week of the 1 Peter sermon series; the messages that arose from my study retreat after Bill’s prophetic word from God.
During the retreat, I spent hours laying out this series of messages that would take place over several weeks. I figured out texts, titles, and themes. Back at the church, we publicized the series in advance (as we always do) so everyone was in the loop. Our music leaders sometimes use the messages to plan their portion of the service. One of our children’s Sunday School teachers keys her curriculum to my messages. Many of our people like to read the Bible passages during the week to prepare for Sunday. So information was distributed and everyone made their plans.
In the week leading up to the 1st message, I had completed my textual research. I had figured out key points to address, and an outline was developed and placed in the printed program for Sunday.
And then I hit a bump in the road.
As I sat in my study on Saturday, trying to put the finishing touches on Sunday’s message, I kept getting more and more uncomfortable. I had lots of pieces that I could not fit into a coherent whole.
I wrestled with it for a couple of hours, thinking that somehow I was the problem. Thinking that if I could just get my mind in gear, I could nail it down. Thinking that this was my problem, so I needed to solve it.
So finally I did what I should have done at the outset: I prayed.
I asked God for some wisdom and insight. I even said something like this: “Lord, are You trying to get my attention? Are You trying to tell me something about this message?”
And the impression came back strongly into my mind: “Yes! Look again at the text with fresh eyes.” As I did, I saw it in a new way. I realized that I could (and should) divide this one message into two. I saw how this would result in two much better sermons. I felt a rush of heat through my body and said out loud, “Is this what You wanted me to see, Lord?”
I did not hear an answer, but there was a sense of conviction that this was the solution I needed.
Yet immediately I thought of all kinds of reasons NOT to proceed.
If I made this change, the entire series would be bumped back a week. It would throw off the schedules of various people. The outline in Sunday’s program would be wrong and useless. I would have to write a new message from scratch! And it already was Saturday afternoon.
These objections – and more – bounced around in my head.
And yet I could not shake this thought: “Are you listening to Me, Bruce?”
How is it possible to “know” things that can’t actually be proven? I never could convince anyone that God was speaking to me in that moment, but I know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that He was.
So I wrote a whole new sermon and changed the schedule around. On Sunday morning, I told the church what had happened and – like me – they were rather amazed.
The two new messages (Week 1 and Week 2 of the series) certainly were an improvement over what I originally had planned, but they were not earthshaking. I found myself wondering why God had wanted me to make this change. Perhaps He simply wanted me to see that I had not been listening to Him closely enough during my study retreat.
That may be true. It also may be true that I heard God perfectly during the retreat…and that He wanted me to hear Him again, in a different way. In other words, I may not have misheard God the first time. He may have wanted to intervene in a dramatic way; prompting me to change the schedule at the last minute in order to make a point.
And I think that’s what happened.
Why? Because – by moving the schedule of messages back one week – we had an amazing moment.
One historical Friday (June 26, 2015) the U.S Supreme Court decided to legalize same-sex marriage. It was, in my view, an exercise of raw judicial power completely divorced from the democratic processes that our country is supposed to follow. It was, and is, a huge blow to a nation that long has understood and embraced the natural view (and biblical view) of marriage as an act which unites one man with one woman. I believed at the time (and continue to believe) that this decision will be a significant step in the erosion of religious liberty…particularly for those of us who follow Jesus Christ.
The decision was announced on Friday. Two days later, my text was 1 Peter 4:12-19…a text perfectly suited to our times. The title I had picked – weeks earlier – was “Don’t get burned by a fiery trial”. I
did not preach about “same-sex marriage”; I spoke about the issues faced by the First Century Christians to whom Peter was writing.
They were experiencing cultural and government harassment. They increasingly felt like outsiders in a secular world that had a growing dislike for men and women of faith. In that environment, they needed to trust more deeply in God...and not expect too much from human government. The parallels to our own day were striking.
At the end of the message, I made a few brief comments, beginning with this statement:
As you know, I plan each sermon series, in a broad way, months in advance. I certainly have no idea what will be going on in the world at the time I actually deliver the message. For example, I did not know that our Supreme Court would rule on same-sex marriage the week that I would be preaching on this passage. But our Heavenly Father knew. I believe He arranged the timing of this, because there is much in this text to guide our response to current events.
I then made some connections between the text and our circumstances. I talked about how we, as followers of Jesus, can respond to our changing world. We can remain faithful to God, and still extend love to our very confused culture. I was able to offer some words of hope and encouragement to our family of believers who were feeling a huge sense of cultural shock that day.
As I walked off the platform, all of a sudden it hit me: this timing would not have taken place without the change in schedule I made back on the first week of the series!
If I had not listened to God…if I had been unwilling to change…our church would have missed out on a key moment when God wanted to offer us a timely word of encouragement.
Once again, I had goose bumps. Once again, I was filled with awe. And I was filled with a growing awareness that God does want to catch our attention at times. He does want to speak to His people.
The key question always is this: when God is speaking…are we listening?
I’ve had a handful of spiritual experiences in my life that I describe as “wild, weird, and wonderful.” These are incredible, out of the ordinary moments, when God steps into my life in a supernatural way. I don’t go looking for such events, but I want to be open to them when they happen. I wrote about one of these in an earlier post (“No Shortcuts with God”, March 16, 2010) and last year I had another one.
I was standing in the church lobby on a Sunday morning, when a man came in that I did not recognize. He marched right up to Rob, our Associate Minister, and said, “I need to speak to the preacher of this church.” Rob pointed me out. This man came over to me, placed his hands on my shoulders, looked me closely in the eye, and said (in a loud and forceful voice), “My name is Bill and I have a word from the Lord for you. Will you receive it?”
That’s a rather unusual way to open a conversation, isn’t it?
In our particular branch of God’s family, we don’t talk like this. We don’t expect people to show up, out of the blue, with “a word” from God. I was familiar with the concept, but not entirely comfortable with what was happening.
Yet I knew that Bill believed the Holy Spirit was directing him, and I was curious about his message. I did not actually know whether or not I would be able to “receive” what he said without first hearing the message. After all, Scripture tells us to evaluate what we hear that is offered to us as a prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:29). So after a moment of hesitation I said “Yes”, prepared to listen and try to discern if God really was speaking through him during this moment.
Bill said, “The next time you plan your sermons, God wants you to do so with your Bible open, in an attitude of prayer. He wants you to listen carefully and preach the truth.” Bill then prayed over me, asking God to bless me and to bless our church.
We had a brief conversation and I learned that he never had visited our church before, nor did he know anyone in our congregation. He did not come to attend worship…he came solely to bring me this message. All week long, he said, the impression had been growing that he needed to stop by and give me this “word”. I thanked him for being faithful to do what he believed God was telling him to do, and then he left to attend worship at the church he attends (nearly 12 miles away).
Not a typical way to start a Sunday morning at church!
All of this was far outside my usual experience. It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit uncomfortable. And the very unusual nature of what took place… along with the fact that Bill was a total stranger… made it easy to think, “That guy is an oddball and I can just write him off.”
And yet…what’s not to like about the message Bill gave me? I always prepare my sermons in an attitude of prayer with my Bible open. After all, I cannot have perfect knowledge about what the people in our church need to hear. Only by praying, and trying to listen, can I discern what God wants me to say next. What Bill said was a marvelous affirmation of the way that I prepare messages.
On the other hand, looking at Bill’s comment objectively, God could have sent this same message to every pulpit minister that day and it would apply. Any preaching minister could…and should…gladly receive such a message. Shouldn’t every one of us prepare our messages with an open Bible and a heart open to God?
In other words, it seemed like a fairly generic “word from the Lord.”
Yet Bill was convinced that this word was specifically for me, on this day, on behalf of our church. Was this in fact true? Was he right? Was God speaking to him and speaking through him?
I knew that this word truly was from God because of something that Bill did not know. Because of something Bill could not know.
That very afternoon I was leaving for a two-day study retreat to plan sermons for the next several months.
Think about that: Bill showed up, with a message from God about sermon preparation, on the very day I was getting ready to start preparing future sermons. Clearly this was not a coincidence.
So I chose to receive what Bill said as a prophetic word from our loving God. I received this as a wake-up call to pay extremely close attention as I was studying. I recognized that I needed to be listening carefully to God.
I had goose bumps, because God had shown up in my life in an amazingly dramatic way. It was a wild, weird, and wonderful experience. God was speaking to me. He was speaking to me about my responsibility to listen carefully on behalf of our church.
The result of my study retreat was a series of messages that led our church through the Book of 1 Peter. And week after week, people in the church commented just how timely these sermons were for them individually. The series turned out to be quite timely in the life of our entire church, because it showed all of us how to live as men and women of faith in a culture that is rapidly turning away from God.
All of this was tremendously encouraging. It reminded us that God watches over us. He watches out for us. He has our best interests at heart.
God wanted to make sure that we spent time in the Book of 1 Peter. He wanted to catch my attention and make sure that I did not miss what He wanted to say to me. So our Loving Father sent the Spirit to prompt Bill – a complete stranger – to bring me a word of prophecy.
It was uncomfortable, it was out of ordinary, and therefore it would have been easy to discount or even ignore it. But I could not. It was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the good of our church.
God was speaking. There have been many other times when I know I have missed His voice. I am so thankful that on this particular morning, I was willing to listen.
This post describes the non-profit organization we formed for Julie’s ministry.
The ministry of the unfolding soul is to equip women (primarily) to draw closer to God so they can experience a richer, fuller, spiritual life. This ministry helps people discover their gifts, talents, and abilities, so they can achieve their full potential as children of the Heavenly Father. In particular, this ministry focuses on the spiritual development of women:
The Unfolding Soul offers a variety of tools and programs to help women grow, such as:
One-on-one Spiritual Direction & Discernment
Spiritual direction is an ancient practice of the church that is being rediscovered and newly practiced among believers. Spiritual direction sometimes is called “holy listening” and it is a process of slowing down and learning how to listen more closely to God. In our overly busy world, this is something we desperately need! Julie has earned a Certificate in Spiritual Direction and Spiritual Formation; this training has equipped her to help women learn to listen more closely to the Lord, and better discern how the Holy Spirit is leading them.
Talks for Retreats, Conferences & Workshops
Julie loves to speak to groups on a variety of topics. She has done this regularly for years, and new opportunities now are emerging for her to speak around the Northwest. Last year, she was able to present a workshop on Contemplative Prayer for men & women at the Boise Bible College spring conference.
We are blessed to have a home that is rather distinct and can provide women with a sense of rest. So several times a year, Julie hosts small workshops and day retreats for women here on our property. She has held several such events over the past year.
Ministry Coaching – Individuals & Teams
People who serve on a church ministry staff face a unique challenge: where can they turn for advice and counsel? Where can they find a safe place to openly discuss challenges, opportunities, and heartaches? A ministry coach who is not part of the church can help fill that need. This is a role Julie loves to play: to come alongside women who are serving, and encourage them in every aspect of life and ministry.
It’s not just individuals who need coaching, but ministry teams. Here in our area, most churches are quite small. We came from “the land of megachurches” and now we live in a city where there is not a single megachurch. The church we attend, where Bruce serves as the Preaching Minister, is a congregation of roughly 300 and is considered large by local standards. (Take a look at www.gardenway.net).
And here’s what we’ve seen: many of the small and medium-sized churches in our area lack the resources to develop an effective women’s ministry. Even if women are available and willing to serve, they often have not been trained to lead. Through ministry coaching, Julie is able to help form a group of women into a viable leadership team. Her goal is to help women identify their gifts, help them understand the needs within their church, and then provide meaningful spiritual programs (not simply “events”) that will draw women within the church closer to God.
She is finding opportunities to meet with a variety of women in ministry and encourage them in all kinds of ways.
Starting in late 2014, we spent hours learning the ins and outs of forming a non-profit. We wrote up organizational plans and guidelines, Articles of Incorporation, and formed a Board of Directors. Then we applied to the State of Oregon and received recognition as a non-profit corporation. With that in hand, we then were able to be recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt, charitable religious organization…known as a 501(c)(3). We’ve held some informational events and sent out ministry packets to interested individuals and – by God’s grace – we have been blessed with a variety of men and women who are choosing to invest in this ministry.
We continue to marvel at the unfolding handiwork of God in our lives…and we find great joy in the unfolding ministry of the unfolding soul.
- Julie & Bruce White
This is our vision for the ministry of a place called “The Lavender Pavilion”.
The Lavender Pavilion is designed as a place for a brief personal retreat. This 1/3-acre garden offers the opportunity to step away from the hectic pace of daily life and experience some moments of serenity. While all are welcome, we have specifically designed the garden with women in mind.
This quiet place is a work in progress. When fully developed, it will offer a variety of plants and flowers, a few “themed” garden areas and some water features, all surrounding a central prayer path (labyrinth). There will be scattered benches for those who want to sit, read, ponder, or pray. A covered shelter will provide the opportunity to enjoy the garden during our many rainy months.
The garden is conveniently located on the Springfield/Eugene border. As a result, women from throughout the area easily can stop by for a moment, a few minutes, or for a more extended time of rest and reflection. Walk the prayer path…read some Scripture…or enjoy the beauty of the flowers while pondering the majesty of God. Moments such as these bring refreshment to our souls and greater clarity to our lives.
The Lavender Pavilion is located on the historic farm property of Bruce & Julie White. (Our home is one of the original farmhouses built in this part of town and was constructed around 1905.) The garden is being personally developed by us, with the assistance of a few friends, as our gift to the community.
We are so excited to see this vision slowly and steadily unfold. The vision has evolved since 2010, but God is faithful and He is equipping us to keep pressing forward. We are learning that God does not care much about time, so we do what we can…when we can…and we leave the details up to Him. We are truly grateful to the family and friends who have supported us in various ways to help develop this garden.
Once the garden officially “opens” we hope to develop a simple website to highlight it’s availability to the community. As we invite people to enjoy time at The Lavender Pavilion, we probably will issue the following guidelines:
Since the garden is on our private property, we ask all visitors to respect our privacy, as well as the privacy of our neighbors. Limited parking is available adjacent to our narrow, country lane. When you visit, please drive slowly and carefully. And please limit your visits to daytime hours.
Our hope is to complete the labyrinth this summer and then make the garden available as we continue to develop it.
- Julie & Bruce White