Monday, February 11, 2008


Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. It seems life is a series of endless decisions that lead us through time…what to wear, where to go to college, what to eat, how to act, where to live, to stay in a relationship, to leave a relationship, to go to school, to quit school, and of course, the proverbial quest of figuring out what we want to be when we grow up.

Some decisions are easier than others…what to wear v. what to be (then again I suppose which seems easier all depends on the person, after all), but all of them force us to choose, for in life it seems we never get to have it all.

The decisions and choices we make shape, for better or for worse, the contours of our lives. When lined up one by one, our life choices reveal to ourselves and to the world that which we value (or perhaps, for that matter that which we do not value). Think about it. Every time we make a choice, we choose based on some implicit or explicit value, whether we ourselves realize it or not. If we were to ask each other and ourselves “why” at every choice point in our lives, we would begin to unearth the implicit values driving our lives.

One by one the decisions we make add up to a lifetime of values that shape and mold who we are by what we choose. Often, this is something we realize only too late after one too many bad decisions.

I don’t know about you, but when I begin to think about the way in which my choices translate into values (or perhaps vice versa), I suddenly become more anxious about making decisions. Suddenly it seems as though the weight of the world has descended on my shoulders about the smallest of decisions. How do we possibly begin to make decisions knowing that what we choose bears out what we value and who we will become?

In our Christian tradition, we often talk about the process of making decisions as discernment which can be a spiritual journey in and of itself. Within the wider Christian community there are a myriad of ways to practice this type of discernment. This week, I read an article by Jan Richardson in which she told two Dominican tales about the quirky discernment processes of St. Francis.

“In the first story, St. Francis and Brother Masseo are on a journey and come to a crossroads. Not knowing which path to take, St. Francis tells Brother Masseo to stand at the center of the crossroads and spin himself around. When Masseo finally falls down, Francis and his dizzy brother set off in the direction in which Masseo had landed.

In the second story, Francis is trying to discern whether he should spend all his time in prayer, or whether he should also go out and do some preaching. He senses this is not something he should decide for himself, so he enlists Brother Masseo’s aid once again. He sends Masseo to two trusted souls, St. Clare and Brother Sylvester, to ask them to pray about this question. In prayer, they each discern the same response: Go and preach. When Brother Masseo takes this word back to Francis, he leaps up, saying, ‘In the name of the God, let’s go!’”

Now, before we chuckle a little too hard at our Catholic sisters and brothers in the faith, we must remember that our own dear founder, John Wesley was fond of similar means of discernment using both casting of lots and bibliomancy, the practice of randomly opening the Bible for answers.

Although these stories and practices are not the most sophisticated of Christian spiritual disciplines, they do in fact tell us important things about the process of discernment itself. The first story reminds us that sometimes there is no one right definitive decision to make; no one clear path. At those times it’s sometimes better to set off in some direction if the alternative means staying stuck at the crossroads. At times our anxiety over making a decision can paralyze us and lead us deeper into a depressive inertia. The fact of the matter is, whatever decision we make, God will continue to offer us new possibilities for seeking the good in our lives. God can turn any path around.

The second story reminds us of the importance of community in times of discernment. Faced with a momentous decision, St. Francis realized the question was too big for him alone and sought the insight of those who knew both him and God well. When their mutual answer came, Francis trusted it to be the voice of God known through his community of faith, and he moved forward without hesitation. This idea of communal discernment is nothing new for us Methodists. In our own tradition, Wesley instituted the practice of Christian conferencing or Christian conversation for communal discernment on matters of faith, doctrine and polity.

These questions of decision and discernment are intimately related to the gospel lesson for this week. Matthew 4.1-11. Here we find Jesus in a similar time of discernment having been driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit just following his baptism. For forty days and forty nights Jesus fasts and prays (two other time honored Christians means of discernment).

When Jesus is sent into the wilderness by the Spirit, it is not to pass an ancient rite of passage for gods and heroes of mythic proportion, but rather, I believe it is to invite Jesus to contemplate and discern his choices for ministry. You see, Jesus’ wilderness experience continues the initiation begun by the ritual of his baptism. Child of God Jesus may be, but here at the beginning of his ministry, he needs this liminal space, this in-between place, to deepen his clarity and to prepare him for what lies ahead.

In this desolate landscape, Jesus comes to a clear and vivid understanding about who he is, what is essential to his ministry and what he values most. It is in the wilderness that Jesus is forced to confront his deepest desires, his greatest longings and his most terrifying fears. Here, in the wilderness Jesus faces all the temptations that seek to lure him from the path of God. The choice was his to make. He could have had abundant wealth, unfathomable security or unlimited power. But none of those choices embodied what he valued most. Having spent forty days in deep discernment, Jesus was able to resist temptations for he knew who he was and wanted to be. It was this process of discernment that clarified for Jesus exactly what he was called to do.

More often than not when we think about the process of making decisions, we imagine the traditional list of pros and cons. Drawing a neat line down the center of a clean sheet of paper, we meticulously list out all the reasons in favor and all the reasons against following a certain line of action. How many of you have made up those lists? This process, we believe, is about logical deduction, right? We use our powers of logic and reason to come up with the most rational decision possible.

The only problem with this method is that human decision making is never based in rational reasoning alone. Although we as a post- Enlightenment people like to believe that it is always the cool hand of Reason that guides us, recent studies in psychology have discovered something else going on in our deliberations.

According to research, there are two primary ways of learning and knowing in the human brain. The first is cognitive; the logical, rational part of our brain that most of us are quite familiar with. It is the side of the brain that looks at decisions in a logical way, deducing from the pros and cons which decision is best. The other way of knowing is affective; the part of our brain that processes emotions and feelings. While cognitive can be thought of as the head of our decision making processes, the affective side is the heart.

Most of us like to believe that we make our decisions solely based on our cognitive reasoning. However, much to the surprise of researchers, studies have shown something quite different. When psychologists looked at persons who for one reason or another did not have access to the affective side of their brain, they discovered that these persons had a very difficult time making decisions, even simple decisions about where to go, what to buy or what to eat. Further research was able to prove the essential role our affective reasoning has on decision making; that is the way in which our emotions, our feelings, our heart direct and guide our concrete actions in the world whether we realize it or not.

Lent offers us the opportunity to examine our hearts and delve deeply into our souls as we reflect upon the decisions we have made and will make. These next forty days become for us a time of quiet discernment where we are invited to look more closely at our lives, our actions and the feelings and values that drive them. Instead of the rational, logical way of being and knowing, Lent asks us to look more closely at the stirrings of our own spirits in relationship to the Divine.

Where is the Spirit leading us as we are driven, like Jesus, into this wilderness time?

The Good News is that God always offers us infinite possibilities for making new and different choices. Despite our decisions in the past, God constantly offers us new opportunities to make different choices and change the course of our lives. When in retrospect we find ourselves drifting from the values most important to us, when we find ourselves far from our family, friends and even God, God offers us a new chance to change and do something different. This is what Lent is all about, after all. Lent is the time of discernment when we have the opportunity to examine our lives, to celebrate what we love and examine more closely the things that disturb and distract us.

Over the next six weeks, we at Cambridge Welcoming will explore various practices for spiritual discernment and discipline as a way to examine our personal and communal lives, as well as prepare ourselves for the long journeys ahead of us as we prepare God’s kin-dom on earth. May we use this time in Lent, this liminal, in-between space to draw closer to one another and to God as we step back from the hectic pace of life to discover and discern the way forward through the wilderness and into the promise land.

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