by Ashley Whitham
Discipleship Development Minister
This may seem weird to some, but I’m a firm believer that discernment can and should be fun. Too often ministers make it too serious, and the process becomes heavy and burdensome. We make it too hard.
What gets in the way of discernment being fun? First our own sense of importance. If we’re doing something that is church business, then we must take it seriously, because anything that involves potential interaction with the Spirit of God must be done with strict devotion, and perhaps a three-piece suit. We don’t interact with each other that way, so why would we interact with God like that? Have you never played with the Holy Spirit? If you truly believe God has a sense of humor, please share your best dad joke with the Divine! God’s probably heard them all, but that doesn’t mean it won’t give the Creator of the Cosmos a giggle.
The other way the discernment process gets depressed is by our fear. We know that discernment brings change, and we hate change. So our fear of the unknown prevents us from enjoying the discernment process. If we allowed ourselves to be free of that fear, and to keep our hearts and heads open, we just might find we enjoy the process.
Discernment is an act of creativity. God is revealing something new to us, something that we have never considered before. It requires us to expand our hearts and minds to accept this new thing, whatever it is. How do we think of a new thing without engaging with some Holy Imagination? Whether it’s writing an imaginative re-telling of a familiar scripture in order to understand the lesson better, or using art or music to guide our minds to a state of openness, imagination must absolutely be part of discernment.
I’ve been trying to experiment with new and different forms of discernment. I’m kind of getting a reputation for never doing the same spiritual practice twice, but that comes from my strong belief that there are always new ways to experience the Divine in our lives. God is all around, in the between, ready in the moment with creation to love, hug, heal, play, or weep. If God is here to experience life alongside us, why would we limit ourselves to prayer, meditation, journaling? Not that there’s anything wrong with those; they just don’t work for everybody.
Last week at a reunion, we did blackout poetry as a discernment practice. Now, I find the instructions I give for this are similar to “Dwelling in the Word” – pick out words or phrases in the text that speak to you. Except then we’re gonna cross out every other word! It’s really tricky for people to not get caught up in the author’s original message. (Hint: read the page backwards.) There will sometimes be those people who keep whole paragraphs, because they are too enamored with the author’s original work. But they’ll get better with practice. Then, you get to play with the words. Once you’ve stripped away the excess (by crossing it all out with a black marker), what message exists for you in these new words? I let people choose the structure and add appropriate verbs or articles as they deem necessary. But the poems some of them came up with… prophetic!
Recently, while preparing for the “Prayer” month in conjunction with the World Church’s discernment process, a congregation created prayer cards. With the discernment question in mind, they sifted through many images in search of what spoke to them, before assembling the collage on a card. The entire congregation participated, from the 9-year-old to the 90+ year old. The creation of the cards is an intuitive process, opening our hearts and minds to what image speaks to us, the placement of the images, what the images mean for us on their own as well as once combined. Discernment is Intuitive. We may think or feel something without fully understanding why in the moment. Sometimes Spirit prepares us without telling us what we’re being prepared for. And so to follow that requires us to rely on that God-spark of instinct within us.
I desperately advocate for discernment on the congregational level. Too many of our pastors have become managers, focused only on the maintenance of our congregations as they exist now. They don’t allow themselves the time and space to expand their thinking for something new. There’s no room for playing with the Spirit or fellowshipping with God. It’s business, and it’s burning out our pastors. But I’m also convinced that individuals learning to lead lives of discernment would create a prophetic people. We are no longer allowed to be people who sit in the pews and watch a pastor do all the interactions with the Divine for us. We must step onto the playground ourselves. Learn to play catch with the Holy Spirit as you bounce ideas back and forth. Give the grandparents and the grandkids some sidewalk chalk and a nice long piece of the parking lot, and then walk through the displays together to hear how God has inspired each of the drawings from the artists themselves. Do a proper exegesis, and then rewrite a scripture as a play in a modern context. Be moved by a sermon, and write a song. Sing together. God is in all those moments of creativity, too. We need to play with Spirit. Discernment should be fun.