What is Discernment, Anyway? (Part 2)

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

We’re talking about discernment at St. Christopher’s these days–about how we make decisions as a community of faith by listening for the Spirit among us.

mfebSyqLast month, I offered this definition of discernment: “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).  Okay, so discernment assumes that God is active in the world, it can be done individually or communally, and it has to be done intentionally.  But what does it look like?

The Bible is a good place to start with this question, since it’s filled with examples of individuals and communities practicing discernment.  In Acts 15, for example, the church gathers to discern whether or not gentile converts to Christianity must be circumcised, continuing this custom of the Jewish community.  The church is divided on the matter; they respond by gathering together, listening to persons speak from a variety of perspectives, taking time for prayer and silence, and coming to a decision.

While the story from Acts doesn’t give us a ready-to-make recipe for discernment, the important elements are all here:

  • Whether we’re working on an individual or a communal level, we must invite the perspectives of others.  If Bill is wondering whether he’s called to a career change, part of the process of discernment will likely involve seeking the input of trusted friends and family members, testing to see whether God may be speaking through others to confirm or call into question his plans.  A community seeking God’s vision will need to be open to hearing from many voices, not only the most vocal or central, but also those on the margins.
  • The process of discernment doesn’t happen overnight: it requires time for deliberate silence and prayer.  Discernment is not simply going with our gut or making an informed decision.  While the Spirit certainly can work in these ways, when we’re seriously attempting to discern the Spirit’s movement, we need to slow down, quiet our thoughts, and “detach ourselves from our own desires for wealth, prestige, and security” that so often take over (Rogers, 108).  As long as we are simply acting out of our own desires, we are not likely to be open to God’s Spirit, which has a pretty good history of taking people in directions they had not planned!
  • Eventually, we come to a decision in discernment.  It may not be the one we thought we would make, and it may not happen in the way we expected.  Some communities practice discernment by absolute consensus, believing that total agreement is necessary; others practice a sort of majority rule.  However we come to a decision, we come to it humbly, prayerfully, and with an openness to change in case the Spirit seems to have something else in mind.

Our congregational retreat is coming up very soon, on October 6 and 7.  This is a time for us to practice discernment as a community, but I want to remind you that we’ve already been engaging in this process for some time.  A year ago, we finished a series of conversations in members’ homes about our hopes and dreams for St. Christopher’s; this summer we read the book of Acts as a congregation, taking time to pray and reflect on these stories of the early church; and at this upcoming retreat, we’re going to be doing some discernment around our values and vision as a community of faith.

I encourage you to be a part of this retreat: your eyes, your hands, your faith are part of God’s work at St. Christopher’s, and we need them all as we seek to discern God’s vision for this community.

Peace be with you,
Pastor Andy

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