Discernment is a process in between. An awareness that something must change prompts us to step into the gap. This is my latest letter to the good people of University Baptist Church of Austin, Texas.
The Rev. Dr. Van Herd and I have a running joke about discernment: He says he is discerning God's call to a place where the sun always shines and lemons grow year-round. He puts great emphasis on “call” to underscore the seriousness of the matter — with a twinkle in his eye.
I always smile, because Van's vision sounds so delightful. Plus it's good to laugh at the process of discernment, which can sound so heavy or come off our lips with such earnestness, without explanation of what the process actually means.
Discernment is a process in between. For an individual, church or organization, discernment is a mental and spiritual, sometimes even physical, space in between two spots: the known and the unknown. We step into this gap prompted by an awareness that something must change. Some call the in-between “liminal space.” My good friend Kathleen Atkinson, a Benedictine sister, calls it “hell in the hallway,” for she knows how difficult it is to inhabit this space of uncertainty, where fear and doubt dwell, where anxiety rises, and where the temptation is to turn back to the known, the familiar, the comfortable.
Discernment is about listening. Discernment is not fact-finding, although the process can be aided by the assembly of information. Rather, discernment is about an open and curious posture in relationship to information: listening at a deeper level to the presentation of facts, perspectives, history, experiences. We listen to others and we listen to ourselves. We pay attention to the feelings that arise within us as we listen — is that fear? is that excitement? — and we ask ourselves why.
Discernment with others requires listening at different frequencies, to use a phrase my therapist taught me. We listen to what is said, and we listen to what is not said. We listen across conversations and underneath them. In our church's discernment, we listen through the past to the present. We listen for the depths our stories reveal — the desires, aspirations and hopes made known in our stories of moments when we said Yes to this congregation.
Deep listening leads to questions. We ask each other to say more. Our inquiries are genuine. We ask clarifying questions because we seek to understand each other. Why are our Yeses so significant? What do our Yeses reveal about the energy stirring in this community? What do our Yeses suggest about who we might become?
There's more to say about discernment. From deep listening we take the risk to share what is clear. We are emboldened to also take the risk to try something, to step into a new activity, habit or behavior, knowing that we will learn from the action, believing that our discernment will be enriched by the action.
But I am jumping ahead. In this Advent moment I want to attend to the exhortation of our sacred stories to “wait for the Lord.” This is the invitation to slow down, to quiet ourselves, so that we may be receptive to “the word of the Lord” that will come to us. That posture is essential for discernment.
So let us step into the gap. Trust that clarity will come just as the Christ comes to us again. In between, we have each other, friends for the journey this Advent and beyond.