Authors: Suzanne G. Farnham, Susan M. Ward, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, Parker Palmer (Foreword)
Warm cinnamon buns, walks in the chilly afternoon forest, and a loving community of fellow Christians, all strangers coming together to share our most intimate thoughts and continual search for God and call: this is one of the brightest memories I will be taking away from 2014. Healing, meditation, and a growing ease with people my own age (not the easiest for a self-proclaimed hermit), were all accomplished when I attend the Listening Hearts three day Discernment retreat. It was here that I first heard of the Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community book upon which the course was based. The three days of spiritual journey and openness lingered with me, and one day while browsing on Amazon, I decided to take the plunge and purchase the book. All I can say is that I certainly wish I had discovered this forth-right, easily understood yet complicated book before. Reading it after my retreat has helped to keep the spirit and quiet search for discernment alive within me, helping to push aside the bustle of the world and concentrate on God and His will for me in all things.
So, what exactly is discernment and where do you get it? How do you know what God is calling you to do? Is God’s will for us always hard, always unpleasant? If we want to do something, does that mean that isn’t of God’s call? Does God give us talents for our callings or callings that then produce talents? What if we think a message is from God and it isn’t? What if we feel that God just hasn’t, or won’t, call us? How do we get that channel of communication open? And if we get a message, how are we to know if it is from the right source and how we should interpret it?
Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community presents a nine chapter book with four appendices and a notes section all of which are dedicated to examining God’s call and purpose in our life and how we can discern the difference between a good, God proclaimed path and a harmful or less fulfilling path. The book utilizes simple language, approaching each topic in small components that dive into the theological heart of the matter, using just a few words to evoke those feelings, questions, and concerns we have long felt but never been able to articulate. It’s a surprisingly fast read and a refreshingly understandable presentation for a religious text. Having been reading multiple religious books at the time (including The Confessions of St. Augustine) it was invigorating and inspirational to read a text not written to be difficult or show off knowledge, but to actively and clearly help the reader look into the most difficult decisions of life and not feel alone.
Discernment is an approach encouraged by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and created by in-depth research and study across all Christian denominations including specifically Quaker and Ignation practices. As such, discernment is represented as a quiet and open communion between the person seeking answers and also other people brought into community to help ask the right questions and lead a full discussion around the chosen issue for discernment. The approach shifts away from our harried sense of “right now, right now” life and advocates quiet, meditation, and the putting aside of self and presuppositions (such as that a call must be difficult or that something for which we have talent is necessarily where the Lord wants us right now.) Discernment, then, is a speculative process that won’t necessarily yield instant fruits – which is all right. The objective is to learn how to be closer to God and to each other.
Likewise, discernment also relates to the process of evaluating a message, determining if it is from God, and interpreting it. The Listening Hearts book also provides the reader with well documented guidance and situations/feelings/events that conspire to reveal true and false messages, giving us a grounding on how to begin determining and following God’s will.
This is where I was especially surprised. I’ll be honest, as an introvert and self-proclaimed hermit, I find the idea of attacking my problems alone not only appealing, but the only option for true discernment. Community is something I always, foolishly, ignored. Admittedly, if I had read this book before actually participating in a Listening Hearts retreat, I may have remained unconvinced. This is something the authors address strongly, showing methodologies for us to discern and to help others discern. We are taught to slow down, to be aware of the baggage and suppositions we bring to the table, to shift away from giving advice to asking leading questions, and to truly listening and accepting silences between words as a time to truly mull over what has been said.
Typically, discernment processes and groups are utilized by those wishing to be ordained. The process, however, is helpful to all Christians in examining a call and if it is from God what they should do to proceed. The first two appendices provide details on how to run and how to participate in a discernment group, both as the person requesting the group and as a person within the group. The remaining two appendices provide details about the creation of Listening Hearts, the creation of the processes it employees, and various opportunities open within this thriving ministry. The Notes section, which I usually don’t read but happily indulged in this time, provides further explanation and remarkable quotes from various sources. Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community will further help the seeker and leave readers inspired and open to all of God’s possibilities. Unequivocally recommended for its common sense, openness, and approachability to readers at all stages of their spiritual journey.
- Frances Carden