ABC Study Series - Discernment
A man was walking down the street when he spied in the front of a shop a weight and fortune telling machine. The sign on the machine read: “Your weight and fortune told for only $5.00.” The man stopped and decided to put his money in the slot. In an instant, a slip of paper was spat out of the machine. The paper read, “Because you have such great abilities and talents, you will go far and will always be successful at everything you do.”
The man was thrilled with the news and he shared it with his wife. She listened without comment and then asked if she could see the piece of paper. She read it and handing it back she said, “Just as I thought. It got your weight wrong, too!”
There is a great interest in knowing the future and many will spend a fortune to get an answer about what they should do in a particular situation.
This book is not of the ‘penny in the slot’ variety but it is a guide book as you take responsibility and grapple with the hard questions. Instead of being a quick fix manual, this book recommends that readers, especially those at life’s crossroads, take forty days to engage in a journey of discernment.
Forty Days of Discernment
There is nothing magical about forty days but in the Bible the number ‘forty’ suggests a significant period. Jesus spent forty days in a desert before commencing his public ministry (Matthew 4: 2-11). It may not be possible or advisable for you to take forty days out of your schedule to be full time on the work of discernment but it would be good to think of how you might carve out a special forty days so that within this period you invest considerable time in walking this journey. As Jesus gave up eating and drinking to devote himself to this task, what might you give up to clear the decks and the diary for action?
The book, ‘Making Life Decisions: Journey in Discernment’ is not a Lonely Planet Guide to discernment. One of the insights of this book is that discernment does not have to be a solo endeavour and, like other forms of travel, discernment is best enjoyed with others. This book may be used individually but couples or groups might decide to embark on a journey of discernment together.
In making a collective decision to take this journey there may be some things people will do together and other things they will do on their own. Decide if and with whom you might make this journey. Even people scattered in different parts of the world might still unite together through this period and share their reflections by phone or email.
Daily Discernment Structure
This book offers a chapter for each day of intentional discernment. Use the book flexibly, especially if you want to linger longer with a particular theme or extend the journey. How long you spend each day and what time of the day you do this is over to you. Meditating on the Scripture and reflecting on its implications is something that should not be rushed. Spending a lot of time in silence might be difficult if this isn’t your custom but learn to extend this important time each day. Each chapter offers these parts:
Approach: This is the time to draw near to God, to collect our thoughts and tell God that we are present. There is a suggested prayer to enable us to focus our lives before God.
Scripture: This is normally a short passage. The suggestion is to read it slowly, repeatedly and meditatively, in such a way that it stays with us through the day.
Silence: With the Scripture echoing in your mind, spend a significant time listening to what the Spirit of God is saying to you.
Reflection: This provides brief comments related to the Scripture theme and often a story to illustrate some aspect of the practice of discernment.
Journal: It is suggested that you record your changing ideas, concerns and discoveries. You might also find your experience of journaling to be like author, Joan Didion’s, who said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Don’t see this like writing an examination answer! This is for your eyes only. Get yourself a special notebook or create a discernment file on your computer if you find this method easier. You might want to work through this book at a later time and what you write this time around may be quite different from what you write on a subsequent journey. You might find it useful to doodle or draw as well as to write words.
Selecting a Souvenir: Tourists love to buy souvenirs from the places they have visited. They remind them of a person, a place or an occasion. A souvenir is something that causes us to remember or literally “to come to mind.” Each day on this journey in discernment there is an opportunity to select a souvenir—some word or image that might bring your earlier reflections to mind for further contemplation. For instance the reflection on Day 1 records the habit that Jesus cultivated of weekly worship. The souvenir you select on that day might be the succinct statement, “As was his custom.” Or on the same day you might be taken with the story of The Little Prince and select the souvenir statement of “readying the heart to greet” God. Or on Day 14 when the reflection is about Moses and the burning bush your souvenir could be a thorn (to remind you of the ordinary way that God often appears) or a sandal (to bring to mind the holiness of every place).
Prayer: A short prayer provides a springboard for your own conversation with God and with others. Prayers are often expressed with the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ as some may wish to experience these daily times with a friend or partner. If so, take turns and share the different tasks—the leader of the day, the Scripture reader or the leader in prayer.
Commission: At the end of your prayer time, sense God sending you forward afresh on the journey of discovery and service.
Check List for the Journey
Here are some questions for pondering, discussion and decision. You might have some more.
Will these daily reflection and prayer times be a solo journey or will you do this with someone else?
When will you make time each day to walk the journey of discernment?
How much time each day will you devote to the journey?
Where will you meet?
What specific things will you give up to make time for your journey?
Group Sessions and Format
Seven group studies, entitled Making Life Decisions: Journeying Together, are included at the end of the book for those who would like to come together once a week for the duration of this forty day journey in discernment.
It is suggested that you meet as a group for Week 1: Ready for the Journey and that your personal discernment times—Day 1: Time and Place to Greet God—commence the day after. There are seven group studies, so if your group meets on the same day each week the final study will serve as a wrapping up of this special discernment process. On the day of the group meeting and study individuals may also undertake their personal discernment exercises for that particular day. Each of the group studies flexibly picks up on some of the themes from the previous daily reflections but it is recognized that groups cannot always meet according to a strict timetable and each group will have to construct their own meeting schedule.
Your group might be an existing group that chooses to use these studies or it might be a new short-term group, especially drawn together to study this theme.
Some of the questions that each group might need to discuss include the following:
1. How will your group be led and who will do this? Will you have different leaders or the same leader each day?
2. Where will you meet? The same venue or will the venues change?
3. When will you meet? What day of the week? What hour will you start and finish?
4. When will the intentional journey commence and conclude? It might be wise to get out a calendar and plot the journey, days and group sessions.
5. Will you have refreshments when you meet, and if so, at what time of the proceedings will you do this and who will make the arrangements?
6. Preparation is encouraged prior to each group study, especially in the way of reflecting on the Scripture reading and pondering the questions for group discussion.
7. Are there other questions or issues that you need to discuss?
Many churches have found benefit in challenging their people to make a short-term commitment to studying a topic together. This might involve existing groups foregoing their usual pattern to be part of this wider exploration, in this case, a series called Making Life Decisions: Journeying Together. A short-term approach gives people not part of an ongoing group, the chance for a communal experience.
In addition to individuals engaging in the daily discernment exercises and such people also coming together for the weekly group studies, Making Life Decisions: Journeying Together, it could be marvellously unifying for weekly worship services to be adopting discernment themes. Perhaps the sermons over this period could be focused in the readings designated for the weekly discussion groups and enriched by the preacher’s daily discernment reflections. Such an integrated process is effective educationally but it would also signal the important ministry of discernment and help weld the church together in a stronger bond of solidarity.
Copyright © 2007 Geoff Pound
 Joan Didion, ‘Why I Write’, New York Times, 5 December, 1976.