an outlet of encouragement, explanation, and exhortation

Category: Practical Disciplines (Page 1 of 2)

Notes on “Focusing on Jesus – It’s All a Gift” Message

In this message, I mention a few resources to which I will provide links below.

First, the books that I mentioned.

The first book is a book that has been tremendously helpful to me as I worked on the recent messages on communion with Christ.

The second and third books are books that are very helpful in teaching and developing the practices and habits that are often described as spiritual disciplines. These are practices that we can do to put ourselves in the position to come to know and love God more deeply, and be changed by Him.

Lastly, I mentioned the organization Renovaré. Renovaré is a great source of podcasts, articles, books, conferences, and other aids to spiritual growth. Quoting from their website, they are a Christian non-profit that “models, resources, and advocates fullness of life with God experienced, by grace, through the spiritual practices of Jesus and of the historical Church.” What a blessing Renovaré has been to God’s people!

Notes on the Communion Maintenance message, mostly related to Dallas Willard

There is a great website packed full of resources from and about Dallas Willard. Many of his articles are freely downloadable from this site. There are descriptions of and links to purchase his books and other materials that are not free. It is a gold mine. Most of the links I give below are to portions of this website.

For Dallas Willard’s discussion of the gospel, see The Divine Conspiracy, particularly chapters 2 and 3. Of course, I and thousands of others would recommend you read the entire book. It is quite profound. Some have found it difficult reading.

More accessible material from Dallas Willard is available from several sources. I recommend the book Life Without Lack. The teaching series from which this book was written is also available online. I’m using this book as I prepare the series of messages beginning with this one.

Another teaching available in several forms that I highly recommend is Living in Christ’s Presence. I’m also using this resource for this series of messages. It is available as a book, a DVD of the talks, and audio. The book was based on a series of talks Dallas Willard gave near the end of his life in which he summarizes the deeper teaching of his more formidable books in a series of talks. The DVD and audio recordings are those talks recorded. Willard’s portions of these talks are simply outstanding. Ortberg’s are fine, too, but….. Dallas Willard. Ortberg has been know to call this series “Dallas for Dummies.” There is some truth to it being an overview; however, making deep concepts easier to grasp is a more difficult task than being long and complicated.

The article from which I skimmed the story of Dallas Willard’s comment during Richard Foster’s sermon on Moses is available online. It’s quite interesting and encouraging.

Not long after Dallas Willard passed, Gary Moon wrote a biography of him entitled Becoming Dallas Willard. It is a fantastic read. I appreciated it a great deal and highly recommend it.

Here are the two Dallas Willard quotes from my message:

“Psalm 23 covers the whole of the spiritual life in God’s kingdom. It’s all there — except for the essential understanding of the historical Jesus.”

“When you pray Psalm 23 you find that Someone is there waiting for you to greet you and guide you.”

About “Breath Prayers”

Have you ever heard of breath prayers”? They have a long history. You may recall a series a couple of years ago in which I mentioned the “Jesus Prayer”.

Anyway, Sarah Bessey recently published some breath prayers with brief instruction on how to pray these very short prayers that I think many may find helpful. Check it out! It’s a practical way to keep oneself centered on the One that matters most.

Quaker Meetings in John Woolman’s Time

While perusing John Woolman, American Quaker, a biography of John Woolman by Janet Whitney published in 1942 that Fred Newkirk asked me to order for him, I ran across a description of what Quaker meeting for worship was in those days. It so happens to also be what meeting for worship in the “waiting worship” approach can be in some Quaker circles still today. While perhaps Whitney idealizes a bit, I have experienced Quaker worship in this way – entering into God’s undeniable presence quietly and powerfully covering all in attendance in a manner I’ve not experienced in other forms of worship. It is most assuredly not merely worship in silent individual meditation; God moves some to speak powerfully – even to preach. Whitney knits through her description of worship a number of characteristics of early Quakers that convey the simple, humble attraction of the movement even in prose exhibiting the limitations of past colonial perspectives. It seemed worth excerpting for those who wonder at Quaker waiting worship to perhaps get a feel for what such worship and the broader Quaker approach to following Christ can be like. So, here’s an excerpt taken in pieces from pages 24-27.

On Sunday and on Thursday they went to meeting “first days  and week days meeting.” …Going to meeting was an outing and a social occasion, as well as a sacred necessity…. Silence spread around the meetinghouse, broken only by the song of birds, the chatter of squirrels and insects, or the stamp of a restless horse. Meeting “began” when the first persons entered the meetinghouse, and the deep silence was the chief part of the ritual. Although to the Quakers no one place was more holy than another, and they never had their meetinghouses dedicated or sanctified, nor their burying places consecrated, they had yet chosen for the site of their first meetinghouse in this neighborhood a place hallowed to the Indians for long past as a burying ground.

It seemed to the simple Quakers that a burying ground already established in a central spot was a suitable place to use for their own dead. God was everywhere and the Father of all. …the body of the first to die, Mary Kendal, was laid to rest by her husband and friends in 1687 in the Indian burying ground… and many more. The Indian dead, sitting upright in their barrows with their pottery and dried corn and bows and arrows beside them for use in the Happy Hunting Grounds, mingled their dust with that of the Quakers who lay reposeful and empty-handed, trusting God for provision in the future life as in the past. …no monuments above ground distinguished the one from the other. Gabriel, if he came with his trumpet, could not read the list of names otherwhere than in the Lamb’s book of life. It was against Quaker custom in those early days to have so much as a headstone. The meeting minute-books and individual family records alone furnished the information. So when the Quakers on the Rancocas were ready to build a meetinghouse, its site was a foregone conclusion. Convenience and habit dictated that it should stand beside the burying ground.

To little John Woolman the meetinghouse was as familiar as his own home. He could not remember any time when he did not go there, for he had been taken before memory became conscious. There was no symbol inside, no cross or altar, to mark the house as a temple, but yet it was solemn in there, it was different. When one entered the dim interior from the outside brightness, one felt a hush. On one side of the center aisle sat the women, on the other the men; and the same division was maintained on the two raised facing benches, where the elders and ministers sat. Behind the elders’ bench, to the southeast, was a small window made of four panes of bull’s -eye glass, and in the southwest wall, on the women’s side, was a large fireplace. In winter when the door was shut, most of the light in the meetinghouse came from the leaping fire that roared bravely in the brick chimney, and in extreme weather the women and children whose seats were furthest from it would move closer and gather near the warmth with decorous informality. In summer most of the light came from the open door…

At times another shadow silently appeared, the black silhouette of a man half-naked with a single feather upright in his hair. The Indian peered in to see the white man’s doings, and never needed telling it was worship. Only the movement of his shadow told his entrance, to take his place among the silent forms and share their inward salutation to the Great Spirit in a language which he too could understand.

It was a heavy responsibility to break that hush by speech. Although there were some who rushed readily into the vocal ministry, an opportunity open to all, a sensitive spirit trembled and forbore. Yet the ministry, by sermon or by prayer, was a necessary part of the perfect meeting, and meetings held for long periods in a silence that was never broken were found to become weak and dead. For this reason a definite “call to the ministry” was favored by Friends, and after a few spontaneous “appearings in the ministry” of one whose words seemed to feed the spiritual life of the rest, encouragement was given by making a minute recording “the recognition of their gift.” This recording minute of the Monthly Meeting, the local executive of the church, was all that it meant to be a minister among the Quakers. It did not in any sense appoint a minister to preach, much less pay him for doing so; and it did not release those not recorded as ministers from the duty of obeying a rare call to speak in meeting when the Divine impulse was felt. The Spirit of God  knew no distinction of persons in this service, neither of age nor of sex, of wealth nor of poverty. Recorded ministers sat on the facing benches with the elders simply because to one more likely to speak than others it was an advantage to be slightly raised and to face the company.

…”We being A large Family of Children,” wrote Woolman in his Journal, “it was customary with my parents after meeting on first  days to put us to read In the Holy Scriptures or Some good Books, one after Another the rest [sitting] without much Conversation; This I think was of Some use.”

John Woolman: American Quaker
by Janet Whitney, 1942, pp. 24-27

Using a form of Lectio Divina for personal meditation

This is a very brief “cheat sheet” on using lectio divina in times of personal solitude with God.

Be alone. Prepare your heart and mind. Then:

  1. Read – Out loud? Repeat.
  2. Reflect – Think it over. What stands out?
  3. Respond – Speak to God.
  4. Receive – Let go and listen.

Jesus often withdrew to be alone and pray. I find that in praying it is easy to speak but difficult to listen. Using lectio divina as a way to structure prayer time with scripture is helpful in getting started with personal times of solitude and silence in prayer that help to preserve our attachment as branches to the vine.

More details for each step are below.

Find a relatively quiet place where you can be alone and undisturbed. Make yourself comfortable, but not so comfortable that avoiding sleep is difficult. (If you fall asleep, don’t fret. Just resume where you left off.) Pick a passage of scripture that you will read, like Psalm 1. Or you could choose a parable or a natural section of the narrative in the books of Moses. Clear your thoughts. Some people find it helpful to focus on one special word, like “Jesus”. Others focus on their own breathing. The idea is to empty oneself of thoughts and concerns in order to be filled with the presence of Jesus. Ask Jesus for his presence.

Read the passage to yourself at least three times. Or listen to the passage on an audio device.

Reflect on what you read, asking God to draw your attention to the one word or phrase or idea from the passage that he wants you to focus on. What word or phrase stood out to you? Let this come easily, like air bubbling up to the top of a glass. Remember this word or phrase.

Ask God about that word or phrase. Or tell him what you are thinking about it. Bring to God whatever is on your mind or heart.

Stop praying your own words or thoughts to God in order to listen and receive. Focus for a moment on the word you chose earlier. Then, let go and listen in silence. If your mind wanders, focus on that word or phrase again. Make note of what comes to you. You may receive a clear impression of what God wants to say to you, or simply a peaceful resting time with God, or an emotion. Be open to whatever God brings to you. Close by expressing the idea to God: “Let it be with me just as you say.” If there is something specific that you believe you should do in response, be sure and follow up.

It is possible to work through these steps in just minutes. Longer, less hurried time is beneficial. Some find spending even an hour or more in preparation is very helpful. Centering prayer is a possible approach to this kind of preparation.

My purpose? To help people pay attention to God and respond appropriately.

Other Resources
For a longer time or restreat, check out an approach to personal spiritual retreat.
Check check this article  on using lectio divina in groups.
Check this site for some additional resources for centering prayer and lectio divina.

Staying at the Bottom and the Edges

[Jesus] demands of his first followers a living witness to a simple life on the edge, because once you are at the visible center, once you are on the top, you have too much to prove and too much to protect… The only free positions in this world are at the bottom and at the edges of things. Everywhere else, there is too much to maintain – an image to promote and a fear of losing it all – which ends up controlling your whole life.

– Richard Rohr, in Dancing Standing Still; Healing the World from a Place of Prayer


Proclamation is a way of saying what God has done and will be doing, and what it means to you and the community of which you are a part. It included three components.

1. It starts our personal, then moves toward being more inclusive of the larger community. It could be that your experience has an impact on the community or is an example of what God does for the community, or something else.

2. Proclamations start out in the present, but then move to declare what the future will be like.

3. Proclamation is God-centered. It is about God. You may start out talking about yourself and then move to your community, but it is the action and glory of God that you are proclaiming.

How do you go about creating your proclamation? First, read some that others have done. Mary does a proclamation in Luke 1:46-44. Her proclamation may be confusing in terms of the future component, because she sometimes uses the past tense to describe what will be done. Another proclamation, in Luke 1:67-79 is by Zechariah when his son John is born. There is a third in Luke 2:28-32 by Simeon as he saw Jesus at the temple eight days after his birth. As we get into this more, there may be others from our worship that may inspire you.

About that… inspire. I wouldn’t recommend that you imitate other proclamations but rather that they would inspire you. You may note that in scripture, the proclamations are done as people are “filled with the Holy Spirit”. That means that God touched them with his Spirit to guide their words. It’s an amazing thing when God touches a human being to inspire them to write using their own personality and gifts to proclaim in the way that God guides them. That’s what we desire – for God to inspire us to proclaim what he desires that we proclaim. We take our own experience of God and build on it as He guides to speak to the community and about the future for his glory. It is important to really highlight God. You express what He is like and proclaim what He has done. That’s vital to proclamation.

So, as you seek God to let him inspire you to proclaim Him, start by praying and asking God to guide you. You may consider things for which you are particularly grateful to God, your relationship with Him, how he has cared for you or guided you, and so on. Then consider what that means for others and into the future. There’s not really only one way to proclaim God’s greatness, is there? The heavens do it without words. So be creative and let God shine!

Waiting Worship Instructions

Be still, and know that I am God

Psalm 46:10

Waiting worship begins in silence. Each worshipper comes to meet with God. As soon as the first person arrives it is time to be quiet. As you arrive, enter quietly with as little distraction and noise as possible and find a place to sit near others.

Start by praying silently. Ask God to quiet your heart and mind so that you can experience his presence. Invite him to help you empty yourself of everything and fill you with his presence. When you have offered yourself to God for this time of worship, then it is time to begin “centering down”. Centering down is a mental and spiritual quieting process that we do make ourselves available to God.

To center down, you simply try to stop all the streams of thought that are running through your mind. Just stop them. Seek to be released from all the concerns and responsibilities of the week and simply enjoy God’s presence. Some people find it helpful to relax and close their eyes. Some find it helpful to have a pad of paper on which to write things down that they do not wish to forget. During this time, we seek to empty ourselves and leave behind consciousness of concerns and thoughts that are not prompted by our Lord.

Some find it useful to focus attention on a particular spot or item in the room. Some people will read a passage in the Bible (such as Isaiah 40:31 below). I have seen some who knit quietly. You will find your own approach to emptying yourself in order to be filled with God. Be patient, and don’t be afraid to experiment and discuss with others what you experience. (Discussion should be after the time of worship is over).

Expectations… over time, we grow to more easily enter into God’s presence. Even so, some report that it may take them nearly an hour – most of the time of a typical meeting for worship! Sometimes we find it difficult to find a place of peace in his presence. It helps to practice in times of quiet – perhaps even while riding to work. It is a good discipline to make space for God.

When the group is together in silence experiencing the presence of God, then the meeting is said to be gathered. Times of powerful gathering can be rare; but sometimes a group can grow to have this experience often. Out of gathered worship, some may be led to speak. Other times the group is silent before God. Allow God to lead; we respond to him.

It is usually best not to come expecting either to remain silent or to speak. Instead, make yourself available to be led by God. Of course, if God leads you to prepare some thoughts before the meeting, you should obey. But keep in mind that he may or may not lead you to speak even if you prepare.

If you are led to speak, please be obedient to speak, but speak only because you are led – not just because a thought comes to mind or because the silence seems awkward. Rest on what you are thinking of saying for a time. If you speak, stand where you are and speak clearly so others may hear. One person speaks at a time. Speak simply and briefly without seeking recognition. Don’t worry about being eloquent or making a speech. Just stop when you are done. The goal is to hear from God and speak if he leads you to speak as a part of the gathered meeting. It is good to build on what others say, but it is not usually appropriate to respond verbally with disagreement or agreement. You do not need to turn to look at them or look up as is customary in a discussion (though it is OK to do so). Your focus is on God; not the speaker. Let the Lord guide you in listening to what is spoken. It is rare to speak more than once in a meeting.

What does one do if another speaks inappropriately? Expect the church elders to deal with the situation or to speak with the person privately. Pray. Know that God is able to take care of the situation. Remain with the Lord and let him guide you.

Traditionally, the meeting is over when someone designated as leader shakes hands with those around him or her. Afterwards, some may remain in prayer or thought. Others may talk quietly – but please be considerate of others around you. Sometimes people will adjourn to discuss or engage in a sort of debriefing of their experience. Encourage those who spoke words that God used in your worship. Encourage those who are learning to worship in this way, especially those who are young.

Stay with it. Worship in this way of waiting upon the Lord is a learned skill that develops and changes over time. It is a powerful, life-giving way of knowing God’s presence.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hid from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Personal Spiritual Retreat

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”
-John 7:37-38, NIV


My comments below are often based on what I heard on audio from a lecture by Annette Fergusson given at Regent College as a part of the Christian Thought and Culture I class. The lecture, entitled The Contemporary Christian and Spirituality, was a guide for students who were encouraged to make a one-day retreat. I am indebted to her for her simple clarity and helpful concrete suggestions. The practice she recommends has helped to fill me again and again with peace and life from the never-lacking source that is Jesus our Lord.

Introduction – What is is?

The practice of Christian retreat has a long history in the Church. It is a decision to make space in one’s life, setting aside everyday activities to seek the Lord in prayer. We follow the example of Jesus, who set aside times of retreat from the press of his ministry and other human beings. Consider Mark 1:32-39, Psalm 62:5-8, Luke 5:16, and Luke 6:12-13. Each of us comes to a retreat with differing needs. Your experience will not precisely mirror mine, or be the same each time.

“Spiritual disciplines aren’t just enforced time with God, they’re rewiring the circuitry of our brains, forming and shaping disciples.”
– Rob Moll, We Are Family, Books & Culture, Nov/Dec 2011

I recommend from 3 to 4 hours up to one day done in such a way as to avoid the need for overnight preparation. Keep it simple and easy. Don’t worry about food; fast for the duration of the retreat. (Perhaps take some water along.) I have nothing against more extended times of retreat. However, such times will require more calendar arranging and preparation. The practice I am recommending is intended to be simple and repeatable monthly or more often. Time with God is vital (John 15:1-8) if we are to bear much fruit.

Why a Retreat?

In our busy society, we face pressures at many levels. Setting aside a time for individual communion with God is a necessity. It is how we are designed to live. As we take time for intentional prayer and meditation alone, we come to see ourselves in the light of the Holy Spirit. With an attitude of openness to what the Spirit may do in us, we allow God to change us. He forgives, redeems, and encourages. He transforms us as we are drawn into a deeper relationship with him.

Getting Started

We come to God bringing everything we are and everything we are experiencing. We meet him heart, soul, mind, and body using all of our senses.

  1. Find a place where to be alone. I prefer natural settings outdoors. You will discover what works best for you. Experiment as necessary with location. Below is a list of some local places that I like. Others may choose a quiet room or indoor setting free from distraction and association with everyday life: a room in a church building or a friend’s home might do well. I find it helpful to walk a few miles (an hour or so) before settling down for the actual retreat. I process thoughts and clear my mind. There is something settling about walking quietly.
  2. Choose to be alone for your retreat. Solitude is a learned spiritual practice.
  3. Turn off your phone and other means of being contacted.
  4. Keep a notepad or journal available. Write down distractions, things you forgot that need doing, observations, thoughts you want to remember, whatever seems helpful. It can be helpful to write out prayer or reflections. Others use a notepad as a place to store things that will steal your attention from the retreat when they come to mind, attempting to draw you back to your everyday activity.
  5. You may find it helpful to use something to focus your attention on your purpose to spend time with God. I usually keep a Bible in sight. Others use a cross. Find a way to keep yourself focused.
  6. Fill your time during the retreat with thanksgiving. Begin with prayer. Ask for grace anticipating in a prayer of trust what God is going to do with your time together. Ask for his blessing and protection on this time. Express your desire to know him and his ways and purposes more deeply and clearly. Make yourself available to him. Think Romans 12:1-2.
  7. Start with a time of quiet worship. The form of your worship will vary from person to person and time to time. The idea of worship is to speak out verbally or mentally your praise to God, to dwell on his glory and express your recognition of who He is. Honor his name. The following scripture passages are good sources of worship thoughts and words: Psalms 9, 18, 19, 23, 24, 29, 30-34, 65, 66, 89, 92, 100, 103-105, 107, 111, 113, 117, 118, 134-136, 145-150, 2 Samuel 22

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina (divine reading) is a way of reading scripture that promotes communion with God and internalizing the teaching of scripture. There are other forms of Bible study for other occasions; this form is good for retreat.

  • Reading: Choose a passage from Scripture that you will meditate on. I find it helpful to choose in advance of the retreat, but allow God to guide you. (Below are some possible passages if you would find this helpful.) Keep in mind that it is content rather than volume that matters. Read slowly, allowing the words of the text to speak to you. Pay attention to the Spirit as you read. When a word or phrase captures your attention, stop and reread it. Write it down if that helps.
  • Meditation: Enter into the Scripture you have read so that you become a participant rather than an observer. Allow the scripture to speak into your own life.
  • Prayer: Consider your feelings and thoughts as you have read and meditated and express them in prayer to God. Be honest with him and tell him what you are thinking, even if you are in doubt or do not understand or have feelings that you find uncomfortable. (He knows, anyway.) There is benefit in just opening up your heart to God to share thoughts, feelings, and even fears. (Like the Psalmists…) When you have emptied yourself of these things, it may be time to move on to contemplation.
  • Contemplation: Sit quietly and enjoy the presence of the Lord. Do not rush this time. Practice his presence; He is with you, so focus your awareness on Him. Seek intimacy with God. Listen. Enjoy your surroundings without losing focus on God and the passage and your thoughts. What God has made declares his glory.

After the time in scripture, it may suit God’s purposes for this time to study or read something else, or prepare a lesson, or write. I sometimes find this time profitable for planning future teaching, preaching, writing, or for other activities requiring thoughtful preparation. But these fruits are the bonuses of retreat, not a “goal” for the retreat. Accept what God offers, whether it is quiet enjoyment, insights, ideas, conviction, or whatever.

Prayer of Thanksgiving.

Close with a prayer in which you thank God for whatever he has brought to this time. The reality of God’s presence empowers us to re-enter everyday life to overflow with the life He gives us. This extended time of retreat can prepare the way for shorter times of daily devotion that incorporate pieces of what we experience in retreat. We are anchored by the time we spend with Him.

A Prayer Partner or Coach

I suggest that you work with a prayer partner or coach before and after your personal spiritual retreat. It will help you to stay focused and accountable. Your prayer partner or coach can encourage you and help you process the things God reveals when you are with him. Share what God is doing in your life, and where he is leading. Pray together for the retreat and an aftermath of overflowing life.

Scripture for Lectio Divina

Here are some possible scriptures to get started in the Lectio Divina portion of retreat. Some of these passages may be too long for one study time. Choose a short enough section of scripture that you can get your mind around it at one time. It may be helpful to do some contextual study and word study to prepare in advance for Lectio Divina. The richer your knowledge of the content of the scripture, the more God can speak to you through it.

  • Genesis 1, 2, 3, 15
  • Isaiah 6, 11 and others
  • Sections of Ezekiel
  • Psalm 139
  • 2 Corinthians 2:14 to 6:2. Chapter 3 is a favorite of mine.
  • Ephesians 2, 3, 4:1 to 5:20
  • Galatians 3:1 to 4:7
  • Galatians 5 and 6
  • Hebrews 10 and 12
  • Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer)
  • parables often make a good study
  • Revelation 21 and 22

Places for Personal Spiritual Retreat

I try to pick easily accessible outdoor locations that do not require a long drive. So I will focus on that sort of place in and near Long Beach. Here are a few possibilities. Experiment and find spots that work for you. Suggestions are welcome.

  • South Coast Botanic Gardens is probably my favorite. There is an admission charge of $7 or $30/year. There are some remote sites in the gardens where you will rarely be disturbed.
  • El Dorado Nature Center is a good location, but all trails can be busy with walkers. I see others doing retreat-like things here. There is a charge for driving into the parking area, but no admission fee.
  • Hopkins Wilderness Park often has some places where you can be alone.
  • Hilltop Park in Signal Hill is a good place to pray over the city. It is somewhat busy for retreat purposes.
  • Rancho Los Cerritos and Rancho Los Alamitos have nice garden areas.
  • There are several city parks where you can find a shady, secluded picnic table at which to sit. Here are a few that have worked: Stearns Park, El Dorado Park, Heartwell Park
  • Deane Dana Friendship Park in San Pedro has become one of my favorite places for the walking portion of retreat. There is only one large set of picnic tables at the edge of the park at which to sit after walking. Shade is practically non-existent; so this is a park I use in the winter only. It is possible to walk from the southwest corner of the park all the way down to the ocean through Shoreline Park and then to the trails along the Trump National Golf Club and Dog Beach in Palos Verdes, which is another good winter retreat spot. There is also parking for this public area at the golf club.

You can download a copy of this post as a document here.

You can also download the slides from a sermon on spiritual retreat I gave on June 10, 2012. A PDF of the sermon slides is at here. The sermon audio is available here as an MP3 and the Powerpoint slides here.

A Discernment Process

Discernment – The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment.
The Free Online Dictionary

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
– Paul of Tarsus, 1 Corinthians 2:12 [niv]

Test everything. Hold on to the good.
– Paul of Tarsus, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 [niv]

Judgment is an ambiguous word, in Greek as in English: it may mean sitting in judgment on people (or even condemning them), or it may mean exercising a proper discrimination. In the former sense judgment is depreciated; in the latter sense it is recommended.
– F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus


What do you do when you have an important decision to make and you want to move forward with confidence that you are in God’s will? How do you test if your “bright idea” or vision is from God? How do Christians bear one another’s burdens, speaking the truth in love? For background reading, consider 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Ephesians 4:11-24, and Hebrews 10:24-25.

As Quakers, we believe that Christ is the head of his church and arrange our practice around this present-day reality. We believe he has come to teach his people himself. However, rather than conceiving of this as strictly a matter between Jesus and each individual Christian, Quakers have for centuries valued the discernment of the community of believers gathered in Christ’s presence. After all, if Christ is the head of the church, is the church not his physical presence with us?

Friends have made use of a structure traditionally known as a clearness committee. This essay is not intended to be an overview of Quaker traditions, but it may be helpful to point out that this discernment process owes much to this tradition. Of course there are other precedents, not least of which might be the council at Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. There are other means by which God offers his guidance. This is one that has proven useful to many of his people in our experience.

Preparing… For those seeking discernment

Discuss your thinking ahead of time with others. Don’t feel as if you need to keep your thinking to yourself. Communicating and discussing ahead of time is good so long as it respects that fact that you are gathering a group to offer you their discernment in the end. So communicate and explain and think out loud. Establish a context with the people who will be helping with your discernment. But if you’ve already decided, then don’t gather a group that is unaware of where you are in the process. Keep an open mind.

Here are some questions that you might consider in preparing to share your idea or question with others who gather with you for corporate discernment.

  1. Where are you in the process of defining your project or goal?
  2. What prayer is being focused on your project or goal? Your own? Others?
  3. What key scripture is guiding your thinking?
  4. How are those closest to you in the Lord involved and responding?
  5. What counsel from trusted, mature Christians have you sought and heard?
  6. Is there more information that should be gathered?
  7. How would you describe the orientation of your project or goal along to
    the following “dimensions”:

    • connect – grow – serve
    • personal or corporate
    • discipleship or leadership
    • church or community
  8. Practically speaking, are you ready for the discernment process? Who should be invited to participate in this discernment process? What is the schedule you have in mind for making a decision? Have you allowed the time needed to extend invitations and explain to others and allow them to pray?
  9. Do others experienced in this process think you are ready?

Remember that you are presenting an idea, a vision, or a question. You do not need to have a detailed plan of action worked out. Those asking questions and giving feedback can ask about practical issues, but should not expect that a detailed plan is already in hand.

There is much about the Christian life that is assumed in this process. Some of the sections of this essay – those at the end – are intended to help in shedding some light on the context that is necessary for a process such as this to work.

Preparing… For those serving in a meeting for discernment

Your role is simple, really. Listen. Learn what you can in advance from the person who wants discernment, but don’t fret too much if you still have questions. Begin ahead of the meeting to pray for God’s blessing on this person. Ask for clarity in His will, ways, and purpose for them. Offer yourself to God to be used in this process in any way that He chooses.

There is one caution. Hold your role in this process with “an open hand”. Your opinion is not what is important. It is your role in gathering with other believers to seek Jesus’ guidance that is important. It is your support for his direction in the life of the one who is seeking discernment that is important.

During the meeting, as the time for prayer approaches, allow the words read from scripture to focus your mind. They have been chosen by the one seeking discernment as somehow representing this occasion. Let other concerns drop from consciousness and clear your mind to be filled by the Spirit of God. As the prayer time begins, offer yourself to God to serve him and your brother or sister who is seeking discernment. Then listen quietly, trusting that He is present to guide. Speak up during the prayer time only if God moves you to speak.

During the feedback time of the meeting after prayer, humbly report what you have received from him. Present it just as he gave it to you – no amplification, no commentary, no extra thoughts or opinions. Just report. Sometimes you might see a picture. Or certain words in scripture may come to seem important. Contribute what God gives you. That’s all you need to do.

After the meeting, keep listening, praying, communicating, and encouraging in the Lord. The group might meet again, but usually once is enough.

The Meeting

Here is an outline of a discernment process meeting. Plan for one cycle of this process to take about one hour. There’s nothing critical about the one-hour time period or how it is broken up below. This is a suggested pattern for when a schedule of one hour is appropriate. For important decisions where time permits, longer in prayer is better. More clarification time could also be useful, but not at the expense of the time in prayer. Appoint a host who can humbly lead the group through the meeting.

  1. The host briefly explains the process, if necessary. (1-2 minutes)
  2. The person asking for discernment presents a vision or idea with a key scripture. (10 minutes)
  3. The group asks clarifying questions. (5-10 minutes)
  4. Someone from the group (a different voice) reads the scripture passage again.
  5. Pray for discernment, asking for God to give discernment and clarity. Generally this is silent, waiting prayer time, but one or more may speak as led. Often no one will speak. (15-20 minutes)
  6. The group gives feedback and discusses impressions. (10-15 minutes)
  7. Close in prayer, the group praying aloud to bless the person seeking discernment. If culturally appropriate, gathering around the person seeking discernment with your hands on them can be powerful.(5 minutes)

There is usually much to talk about after such a meeting. Some, usually those closest to the one seeking discernment with recognized spiritual authority will take more of the lead in following up. The one who is seeking discernment should, of course, remain in contact and communicate their thankfulness to the community that has supported them.

Questions to ask yourself when seeking discernment

Consider the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. The life you have is what God has already given you. How have you invested it? Why would God invest more in you if you have not done well with what he has already given? So, when asking for direction or discernment for the future, one must consider the present. Make good with what you’ve already been given before expecting more. Here are some questions based on a set I once wrote for myself as a sort of ongoing spiritual self-evaluation. I’ve incorporated suggestions to improve them. You may find them helpful. Of course, they are intended for one who is trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior already.

  1. Do you have credibility with the poor?
  2. Do you study and understand scripture?
  3. Do you pray?
  4. Do you see God working around you?
  5. Are you dealing with conflict and unfair criticism or accusations well?
  6. How do you react to gossip? Do you gossip?
  7. Are you bearing spiritual fruit?
  8. Are your relationships good (as it depends on you)? Do they honor God?
  9. How do friends and co-workers regard you?
  10. Do you speak the truth in love?
  11. Do you have mature Christians who know you well supporting you in your decisions?
  12. Are you tithing?
  13. Are you serving God where you are in all you do?
  14. Do you confess your sin appropriately?
  15. Do you pursue excellence in what you do?
  16. Do you control your emotions or do they control you?
  17. Are you consistently winning the battle against temptation?
  18. To what extent are fear, ambition, greed, lust, vanity, guilt, shame – and the like – affecting my present decisions?

It is rare to be unable to find areas in which I fall short. (Actually, it has never happened.) However, there is a difference between falling short and harboring sin. Harboring sin is when I know that something is wrong; but I choose to go ahead with it anyway, giving it place in my life. The sin grows stronger as I allow it to remain intact and do not war against it. This is a sure way to spiritual death. Consider the warning of Paul in Galatians 6:7-10! There is no way to be sure of God’s will for the future when one is harboring sin in the present.

Personal Steps to Knowing God

Every Christian is called to live a life following Jesus’ teaching. (Think Sermon on the Mount. None of us have that down yet!) Every Christian is called to use whatever gifts and talents they have to serve God, serve the body of believers, and serve the poor. (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Peter 4:10, 1 Corinthians 12:7, Matthew 25:31-46) These two areas of God’s will for us are clear. There’s no need to ask, though there may be more we need to learn. It is easy to fall into the pride of asking for God’s special will for me and my life when what I really need to do is practice obedience in what I already know!

In that same vein, here’s another list I made for a sermon some years ago.

  1. Offer your life to God. Be available. Anything – anywhere – anytime; nothing is held back! Romans 12:1-2
  2. Do what you know to be God’s will where you are now: job, school, family, friends, church.
  3. Renew your mind with the scriptures. Learn God’s ways and purpose.
  4. Practice spiritual disciplines.
  5. Prefer a low place. Prefer the poor. Serve.
  6. Purify your heart. Get rid of sin.
  7. Seek God’s will with other Christians. Worship. Fast. Pray. Ask.
  8. Put yourself where you can hear God. Give time to listening, and stretch yourself in circumstances.
  9. Be strong and courageous.
  10. Be patient. Don’t hurry. Wait for clarity. Go when you know. Moses spent 40 years as a kid, 40 years in the desert, and then led Israel for 40 years. Jesus spent 30 years living a private life and a bit over 3 years in public ministry. Most of life (some would say all) is preparation.

For Further Reading

The two resources that I am recommending are not specifically about this process. They are, rather, about the larger context of hearing and experiencing God. You will be able to see where a process such as this one fits into the larger picture as you consider them.

I highly recommend the book Hearing God by Dallas Willard. This is the best overall consideration of this topic that I know of.

In addition, a practical approach to this question can be found in Experiencing God, a 13-week workbook put together by Henry Blackaby, Richard Blackaby, and Claude King. I’ve worked through this workbook more than once. Friends from diverse walks of life such as college presidents and professors to high-school drop-outs have found it very helpful. I don’t know of any other extra-biblical resource with that kind of track record! (FYI, it’s cheaper at Lifeway Stores than at Amazon.)

More Scripture

On the importance of love for proper discernment, consider Philippians 1:9-10.

Love leads to obedience leads to knowing God… John 14:15-31.

Remaining in Christ and loving one another… John 15:1-17.

The Spirit makes things known… John 16:12-16.

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