The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Discernment: Discipline, discourse and discovery

Posted by Ron George on March 4, 2008

Discernment mandala: Divine creativity expressed through the mind's eye.

Discernment mandala: Divine creativity expressed through the mind’s eye.

A task group at our church ventured recently into a minefield armed with a desire to discern God’s will in the matter of revising our Sunday schedule. We discovered the limits of our discernment because we lacked the discipline of our convictions. It’s time, perhaps, to assess some lessons learned.

Discernment is not a process to be invoked in special cases when we want to underscore the importance of our conversation, as though we can choose whether to be under Christ’s authority in the Spirit. The process of discernment is of the very nature of our being the Body of Christ, which we believe is qualitatively different from being members of a civic club. Ours is spiritual kinship, and our being together is not a matter of convenience or even common interest but of providence. We are the church; by definition, those who have been called out of the world into fellowship with God in Christ.

Discernment is our name for being led by God in Christ into truth, whether that be of beauty in worship, wisdom in learning, sanctity in prayer or justice in society. Sometimes, our discernment is unintentional, as we are led by God into truth in spite of ourselves, seemingly by accident, as when we stumbled upon the truth of justice for slaves in the 19th century and for women in the twentieth. It is a far better thing, we hope, for our discernment to be intentional as we dispose ourselves to be loved and led by God in matters large and small, to let ourselves be changed by God into icons of eternal life. It was a key teaching of Jesus, that we be responsive in faith not cowed by fear. It is of the essence of our tradition, as we are empowered to love by shedding our fear even of death and the grave.

Discernment is a spiritual disclipline, an act of individual and corporate devotion under the authority of Christ. If we are his Body, and if it’s true, as we believe, that Christ lives in us and we in him, then we must believe as well that his will superscedes mine, yours and ours. As a discipline, discernment is a way of being together that has substance, content and method that leads to transformation and transcendence. What we discern as Christ’s will in the matter of our conversation is more than our collective will and more than mere consensus, wherein we compromise with each other until everyone feels as though she has a piece of the decision. In Christ, we seek agreement, wherein everyone, as it were, sees the Light in Whom there is no darkness at all but only Him, beckoning us always to be more than the sum of our parts, truly a province of the City of God on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Discernment is not discrete from our conversation but the very ground of it. It’s not a moment of silence before we start making our case or voting for this or that matter before the house. Intentional discernment conditions the manner of our conversation, our assumptions about “outcomes” and the quality of our relationships in community. In discernment, we speak the truth in love, according to scripture and tradition; we acknowledge that no outcome is better than one in which we are mistaken or misled; and that we’re obliged to treat each other and each other’s perspective with respect, patience, kindness, gentleness and grace. We are called to speak peace to one another under the authority of Christ, whom we believe will be the ultimate author of our discourse.

I want to propose a method for such discourse, none of which will be especially novel but all of which arises out of my recent experience as a member of a task group that, in my opinion, failed for lack of courage. (I must add, too, that most members of the task group do not agree.)

Intercession. Just as in worship we pray for ourselves and the world, so let discernment groups begin praying for one another long before their first meeting — daily, by name and in recollection. Remember each member’s face, voice and the central images of her story. For members we don’t know at first, pray that we be made alert and absorbent of these features as meetings progress. It enhances our listening, even to the point of our being able to pass over to the subjective standpoint of others in order to appreciate not only their perspective but the deeper matters of how and why they believe what they do. As such, intercession is fundamental to discernment, the beginning of deep understanding and appreciation for our companions in the Way. At meetings, we hear not only words organized as “positions,” but we also engage the narrative of their lives — hopes and dreams, fears and fancies.

Knowledge. Discernment is not just the sifting of facts, but neither is there discernment without facts; all kinds of facts, from the literal “facts on the ground” to all of the less concrete factors that attend a matter of discernment, including the community’s rules and regulations, policies, assumptions, beliefs, values and demographics. Facts form constellations of meaning within and among which our minds may travel like starships as the view from the bridge changes with each shift of position. Navigating these constellations and conveying their meaning is the principal content of our conversation in discernment. The glory is that our God-given intellects are capable of such understanding; the pitfall is that we may become so enchanted by our understanding and wit that we forget we are called to rise above that to wisdom in the Spirit of God.

Silence. So key and yet so difficult, this aspect of discernment refers to the silencing of our conjuring minds in order to dispose ourselves toward discerning the living and active Word as it may come through a variety of media — scripture, forms of prayer, spiritual practices and the like. Some folks may be sufficiently adept and practiced to clear their minds and engage deeper consciousness, but for most of us, silence is more mundane, more like an escape from the distractions of daily life than plumbing the depths of one’s soul; in any event, silence is a state in which we more apt to sense God’s presence in our hearts and minds and dispose ourselves to be formed in holiness. Discernment calls us to holiness, to letting ourselves be set apart for the special purpose of speaking as an instrument of peace in community.

Discourse. One of the truly remarkable phrases in Christian scripture is found in the fourth chapter of Ephesians:

“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:14-16, emphasis added)

There are not many Anglican controversies — national, international or local — that would not be resolved by our taking on this discipline of discourse, at once so elegantly simple and yet so profoundly difficult. I believe there is no intentional discernment in the church where this quality of discourse — call it STL — is not in play.

STL is patient, kind and never arrogant, boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way but always seeks the good. STL is open to possibilities, especially the possibility of transformation, of change, which is what it means to live in hope, as we are called to do and to be in Christ Jesus. STL means that when my brother and I profoundly disagree, both are willing to be loved by God in Christ (which is faith) and to live in hope that His light will illuminate our hearts and minds and lead us not just to common ground but to agreement thereupon. Discernment in this sense is a discovery not an idea in development, and STL is the means.

STL takes a long time, not because God is a slowpoke but because we are stubborn. STL is seldom responsive to deadlines. STL, moreover, does not occur when we are not face to face, gathered as Christ’s body the church. Marvelous though electronic communication can be, it is no substitute and never will be for the gathering of ourselves, our souls and bodies for holy discourse, whether for Eucharist, choir rehearsal, catechism or vestry meeting. STL doesn’t stake out a position to defend. STL begins with faith and seeks understanding. STL acknowledges its ignorance and prays for guidance and inspiration. STL is not afraid to fail — for now. It waits patiently upon God, tarries God’s leisure, prays actively and incessantly, especially in intercession and meditative silence.

Agreement. Agreement looks like consensus but it is not the same. It is much more. It is rooted in humility and faith, not the clever wording of accommodating resolutions. Consensus is the result of political compromise. Agreement is unity, where we are one in the Spirit. Consensus is an expedient. Agreement is reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable, perhaps even a miracle of divine intervention. As Christians discern their path in community, the goal of our discourse is agreement in the Spirit. It is so rare and so precious that we hardly ever dare seek it anymore, but it’s there; and deep within our souls we yearn for agreement that partakes of our deepest longing for intimacy with God and of God’s longing for us. Scripture teaches that when we truly agree in prayer, God’s purpose is fulfilled (see Matthew 18:19-20). Agreement is just that close to the core of what it means to be one with God in Christ. There is no discernment without it, but only politics and business as usual.

When we dare to discern God’s purpose for us, we must let God take our measure and let Christ rule our hearts and minds. There’s a lot of submission in this, which we instinctively hate. It’s a truism but worth noting that God often leads where we don’t want to go. The way to green pastures and still waters is the way of the cross, through the valley of the shadow of death. Matters of discernment, small or great, are always disconcerting, often painful and seldom without sacrifice, for that is the way of discipleship in Christ.

And without discipleship, there is no Christian discernment.

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2 Responses to “Discernment: Discipline, discourse and discovery”

  1. Ron George said

    Thanks, Lisa. I’ve redefined the terms somewhat crudely as a fundamental difference between “sacred discernment” (agreement) and “secular discernment” (consensus). We discern our collective will in consensus but something more aligned with God’s purpose in agreement, as long as the process is authentically under Christ’s authority. There’s nothing wrong with consensus, except that it’s not appropriate as a model for discerning God’s purpose in community. Consensus is necessary in secular politics, for example, and maybe even a kind of truth is discovered. And, as a friend pointed out yesterday, we may discern in Christian community that no agreement is possible, or that we’ve agreed to do something stupid or wrong. Even Jesus made mistakes. He believed, for example, that his disciples would witness the end of the world. So, we’re let off the hook in our discerning from assuming that we’re always going to be on the right path. The integrity of the process is what we try to ensure, and then we hope that God’s will be done. We know only in retrospect whether we have discerned God’s purpose. Takes a long time.

  2. Ron,

    Thank you for the work that you put into this post. Your rational is loving and supportive. I would be interested sometime in a further discussion on consensus/aggreement as in “Listening Hearts” Discerning call in Community. This little book on discernment does suggest consensus as a form of discernment.

    It seems our church community @ All Saints really wants to embrace themselves as a “Discerning Community”. I wonder how God hears this desire? I wonder if we’re not experiencing something of the cart before the horse? I wonder…….?

    Have a blessed evening,

    Lisa

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