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The Spiritual Practice of Discernment



Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

June 2, 2024

Scripture Text:  Romans 12:1-2  

 

 

There is a series of Children’s books by Jory John and Pete Oswald that our children love, The Bad Seed, The Good Egg, The Cool Bean, The Smart Cookie, and The Sour Grape.

 

In each of these books the major turning point in the plot takes place when the central character announces, “I’ve made a big decision.”

 

When was the last time you made a big decision?

Or perhaps you’re in the midst of making a big decision right now.

How did you go about making your decision?

Did you make an exhaustive list of pros and cons?

Did you talk to friends, family, and colleagues?

Did you speak with a pastor or spiritual director?

Did you flip a coin?

Or did you just go with your gut?

 

Near the end of my first year of Law School at the University of Texas, I contemplated dropping out of law school and going to seminary.

 

During that time my father called my cousin who is an attorney, and asked my cousin to give me a call to talk me out of dropping out of law school. My cousin called me and said, your dad asked me to call you, but of course it’s your decision.

 

As I wrestled with the decision, I spoke with the pastors at the church I had recently joined.

One of the pastors even arranged for me to talk to a friend of his, who was a professor at Baylor and who for years had helped students discern whether or not they had a calling to be a pastor.


I spoke with friends. I spoke with family members. I spoke with my thesis advisor at Dartmouth, who happened to be a devout Lutheran. A lot of people said the first year of Law School is always hard. They encouraged me to “Stick with it” and assured me that “things will get better.”


But I was yearning for something deeper. And I prayed and journaled and eventually found peace in the thought of dropping out of law school, attending seminary, and pursuing a calling to ordained ministry.

 


The praying and journaling helped me, but at the same time I felt like I could have benefitted from a more disciplined approach to making that decision.

 

Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Jesuits, offered a model for individual and community discernment.

 

Discernment, for Ignatius, always aims at enhancing one’s participation in the work of God; it is always undertaken for the glory of God and the healing of the world.

 

And in the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans, which we read earlier, Discernment means not being conformed to the world but being transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that we can discern the will of God, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

 

For Ignatius, there are three predispositions that are vital to the spiritual practice of discernment. (See Frank Rogers, Jr., “Discernment” in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People)

 

One—A passionate commitment to follow God. The guidance that we seek is toward that decision that will bring us into the fullest possible participation in the work of God in the world.

 

Second—An attitude of indifference toward all other drives and desires. If we are to align ourselves with God’s purposes, we must first detach ourselves from our own desires for wealth, prestige, and security.

 

Third—A deep sensitivity to the ways and being of God. This sensitivity is cultivated through prayer, reading, and meditating on Scripture, worship, and faithful acts of mercy and justice.

 

In the classic form of discernment developed by Ignatius, these three dispositions are especially fostered during a 30-day retreat.


What if you don’t have enough time to devote to a 30-day retreat?

 

Frank Rogers Jr., in the discernment chapter of Practicing Our Faith speaks of other rhythms that have been formulated for when people simply don’t have the luxury of taking a 30-day retreat.

 

[Please note that the following contains direct quotes and paraphrased quotes from Frank Rogers, and that these insights are intended for personal study by members and friends of Covenant Presbyterian Church.]

 

He offers the example of a woman named Joyce. A devout Roman Catholic, Joyce was devastated when her husband left her and her four children to move in with a colleague from his work. But after the initial devastation, she found that she was starting to thrive as a single mom in ways that she had never thrived before.

 

After about a year, her husband wanted to come back. What was Joyce to do? After all, she was a devout Catholic opposed to divorce but she also sensed she was better off without her husband.

 

According to Frank Rogers, if Joyce turned to the Ignatian practice of discernment in her quest for clarity, she would be guided through several steps of reflection. First, she would try to become aware of as many dimensions of the decision before her as possible. She would solicit insight from confidants and significant others, weigh pros and cons, and perhaps consult experts on dysfunctional relationships, and the effects of divorce on children.

 

Second, she would devote a particular time—anywhere from a few days to several weeks—to considering the negative side, the decision she feels least inclined to choose. She would frequently bring this alternative before God in prayer. In the context of this prayer, she would reflect deeply on the emotions and thoughts that either attract her toward or repel her from this choice, even those stirrings that are most difficult to face. She would then try to determine whether those stirrings were divine or not. This needs to be a deliberate and prayerful process because otherwise self-deception can block understanding. For instance, feelings of joy and elation may follow an affair but they actually have their roots in destructive impulses. Likewise, feelings that appear to be destructive at first may have a deeper source in the Spirit of life, such as when conflict is a path to reconciliation and deeper healing.

 

The next part of the process is for Joan to bring her “preferred” option before God in prayer, carefully sifting through the emotions, stirrings, and deeper callings, just as she had done with her “negative” option.

 

Finally, Joyce would act in the direction that seemed most harmonious with the spirit. Discernment is for action, and action itself is part of the discernment process. Sometimes our actions reveals that a direction is misguided, in which case we should repeat the discernment process. At other times, the decision is confirmed. [Here ends the lengthy quotes and paraphrased quotes from Frank Rogers.]


Over time, the hope is that the decision will be confirmed by a deep sense of peace felt by ourselves and those close to us.

 

Following my third semester of seminary, I traveled home to spend Christmas with my parents. On Christmas Eve, I wanted to attend the late evening service at the First Presbyterian Church. To my surprise, my father said that he wanted to go with me. In that candlelit sanctuary I got the sense that my father was finally at peace with my calling to ministry, and the conversation in the car ride home confirmed this. Unbeknownst to both of us, this would be the last Christmas we would spend together before my father passed away the following March. My father’s blessing and his own peace with my life’s calling has been a gift that has sustained me through the years.

 

May we each know that deep peace around are most important decisions.

 

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

 


Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.

 

 

For Further Reading about Spiritual Practices:

I have drawn heavily from the following resources in preparing for this sermon series, and I’ve used parenthetical citations for direct quotes. These resources are excellent for further study.

 

Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People; Dorothy C, Bass, editor; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, 2019.

 

 Chapter 8, “Discernment,” was written by Frank Rogers, Jr., who teaches at Claremont School of Theology

 

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