What is Discernment, Anyway? (Part 1)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

It’s time to make a decision: whether to take the job out-of-state, which school to choose for the kids, which evening activities you will plan into your schedule this season.  How do you go about the process of making a call?  How do you decide what to prioritize, what to honor, which road to take?

Maybe you’re the type who makes detailed lists of pros and cons, or maybe you’re one who goes with a gut feeling, something you just know is right.  Maybe your family doesn’t have just one way of making communal decisions, or maybe you have family meetings where someone calls the meeting to order, someone takes the minutes, and everyone gets a vote.  (Hey, it works for some people!)

In the church, when we talk about decision-making, we also talk about something called discernment.  Discernment is one of the ways we make significant decisions as people of faith, and it can be defined in a number of ways.  Here’s a definition I like: “Discernment is the intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations” (Frank Rogers, Jr., “Discernment,” in Practicing Our Faith, 107).

There’s lots worth thinking about here.  First off, discernment is about the activity of God in concrete situations.  So when we practice discernment, this is where we start, with the faith that God is present in the world around us and is up to something there.   God isn’t hanging out in some distant heaven, hoping we’ll figure it all out; God is at work in this world, and discernment is our task of seeking, recognizing, and taking part in that work.

Second, discernment can take place on an individual or a communal level.  We can engage in discernment when it comes to very personal decisions or crossroads and when it comes to decisions a community must make.  The process for the two isn’t all that different.

And finally, discernment is intentional.  Maybe this goes without saying, but discernment is not something that just happens.  Split-second decisions, balanced settlements, even democratic congregational votes are not necessarily discernment.  If we’re going to align ourselves with God’s activity in the world, we must pause in the drive of daily life to look and listen for something beyond ourselves.  There’s no getting around this part: discernment requires some very intentional looking, listening, and praying.

You’ve probably heard the word discernment around St. Christopher’s lately.  We are in a time of discernment, seeking God’s direction for us as a community of faith.  We’ve done some listening to each other, through the series of table talks a year ago, and we’ve been listening to scripture this summer, as we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts.

The congregational retreat on October 6 and 7 is going to be an important part of our discerning as we seek to identify some of our gifts and values as a community.  I encourage you to be a part of this retreat, whether you’ve made it all the way through Acts or not.  Your eyes, ears, and heart are part of the way we may discover God’s activity right here among us.

Stay tuned for more on the nuts and bolts of discernment as we approach our October retreat.  Thank you for your looking, your listening, and your praying as we discern together.

Peace be with you,

Pastor Andy

Image: Praying Hands, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55248 [retrieved September 17, 2012].

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