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Practicing discernment by remaining spiritually disciplined

Sunspots guest: Discernment is less about doing and more about being

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Michael Vinson, at left, was the guest of the Rev. Elizabeth Brineger during a recent Sunspots podcast. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — What is discernment? What is God calling us to do in a particular situation, either as an individual or a congregation or mid council? How do we move forward?

The Rev. Michael Vinson, a teaching elder in the Presbytery of Arkansas, asked almost as many questions as he answered during a recent Sunspots podcast hosted by the Rev. Elizabeth Brinegar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville, Arkansas, and the director of operations of Solar Under the Sun.

Sunspots is an occasional podcast produced by the Synod of the Sun. Listen to the most recent edition here.

“My experience is when we talk about discernment, people are thinking about ‘What does God want us to do in a situation?’” Vinson told Brinegar during their engaging 31-minute conversation. “Discernment becomes a very time-specific thing, such as ‘we need to call a pastor’ or ‘we need to do some work on the church building.’ We talk about discernment as something we do to know God’s will to accomplish a certain thing.”

“That is part of discernment, but as people of faith … discernment for me is really more about being, not so much about doing,” Vinson said. “It’s a discipline, like worship or prayer or Bible study … When we discern, it is a discipline of listening, of listening every day, or a practice if you want to use that word. When it comes time to make these big decisions, we’re ready — or as my grandfather used to say, we’re all prayed up.”

“One thing I’ve learned,” Brinegar said, “is that if we know who we belong to, we know better who we are. And it we know who we are, we know better what to do. In any process of discernment, none of it is valuable unless it is rooted in a valuable object. Our value is in our state of being as people of God.”

“Our value in discerning is in our relationship with God,” Vinson replied. “It’s … between me, as someone who’s called to incarnate the kingdom of God in this place on the Earth, and my relationship with God and what God says to me about how to do that — every day, all day.”

“Incarnating the kingdom of God,” Brinegar repeated. “Talk about what that looks like.”

“What’s the kingdom of God? Peace, love and joy,” Vinson said. “It’s what Jesus brought to Earth … Therein lies our hope. When we decide on this new thing we are trying to implement in the church, it comes from the space of joy, love and peace … We have to know what the kingdom of God is, feels like and looks like individually so we can know collectively.”

Brinegar asked Vinson how people can take in, to embody, qualities like peace, love and joy. Vinson had a ready answer.

“It’s a discipline, a practice, and it has to do with listening,” he said. “Some traditions have this better than we do in Christianity. We call it prayer, and others call it meditation … My spiritual director taught me these are essential for our spiritual health.”

Here’s one way to think of and take in these three vital qualities:

  • Peace is like air. The only way to take it in is to breathe it. Vinson imagines himself outfitted with gills along his back.
  • Joy is the water of our spirit. Water has many uses, including drinking, bathing and washing dishes. “Joy is cleansing and it slakes our thirst,” Vinson said. “It flows up our body like an artesian well.” Joy also “helps cleanse us of the dust bunnies of our soul, the little demons that feed on the wounds of our soul, most commonly fear and anger.”
  • Love is the food for our soul. Whatever cuisine we choose — Chinese, French, soul food, even an all-we-can-eat buffet — feeds our soul. Whatever makes us feel love — making art, creating music, exercising, walking in nature — can serve as “a love buffet we feed from,” Vinson said. On occasion, he said, it’s good to try something new.

Stored up with sufficient quantities of all three qualities, “when it comes time for knowing the will of God, we’re strengthened, we’re more whole.” Best of all, “we come from a heart place and not so much a head place.”

“As Presbyterians, we are heady people. We get stuck in our head a lot,” Vinson said. “Discernment means we are really good at making a list of pros and cons.” But when it’s time to discern, “You have to drop your head behind your heart. You have to feed some of that love, joy and peace and say, ‘OK, we know that in our head. But what are we hearing in our heart?’”

Further complicating the matter, “Once we have a practice of listening and keeping our spirits healthy, we begin to realize that what we are hearing from God does not always make logical sense,” Vinson said. That doesn’t mean we “throw out the baby with the bathwater and get rid of all our logic. It simply means discernment is more than head knowledge … Unless we listen to what the Spirit says, we’re more likely to go with what our head says.”

“When God speaks, God is always calling us to something new,” Vinson said. “And if something is going to be new, the old has got to pass away. I’m an old man. I’ve spent my whole life getting things the way I want them, and I don’t want to change. That’s what’s going on in my head. But my heart goes, ‘Yeah, but what about all these other opportunities that you could do if you put away the old things?’”

However, “we tend to equate being with doing, because we live in a world that is checklist oriented. I’ve got two sitting by me right here,” Bringer told Vinson. “It’s really hard for me to take a step back and say, ‘OK, I am worthy aside from what I do.’”

“Yes, girl. Preach!” Vinson said. “We all know to God we aren’t of value in anything we do. We know that in our heads, but we don’t live it from our heart … Most people do not fully understand how much God loves them. If they did, their life would be a whole lot easier.”

“That checklist doesn’t have any bearing on who you are in your relationship to God,” Vinson said. “You are loved, you are freed, you are forgiven. Most of us don’t really put much effort into knowing that.”

Like dieting, the most successful spiritual discipline “is the one you’re going to do,” Vinson said. “Do whatever you can do to feed your spirit every day … Spend some time every day praying in silence and listening. What are you saying to my heart, Lord? Whatever you hear may make no sense whatsoever, and that’s OK, because the main thing is that you show up … Whatever comes up after that, you’ve met your obligation to God because you’ve shown up for the day.”

“The Holy Spirit blows where she will,” Bringer said, “and oftentimes we don’t even know where we are being blown.”


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