It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God by Mark Love

It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God cover imageSummary: An exploration of the role of discernment in the first 15 chapters of Acts. 

The title of the book, It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and To Us is taken from Acts 15:28, which is part of the letter written to the gentile Christians after the Acts 15 council. After the council, this letter summarized what had been decided. What is clear from the context is that this was not simply a decision of a single leader, or a small group of leaders, but of the broader church. The main thrust of It Seemed God to the Holy Spirit and To Us is to explore the book of Acts to get clues into how the early church practiced discernment and how other spiritual and relational practices in the church helped to facilitate that group discernment process.

Mark Love is intentionally exploring these early church practices for the purpose of helping the modern church learn from them. So this is not just a biblical studies book, but a book for the church today. Central to his thesis is that, “…Pentecost gives birth to…a community living in [a] new social arrangement of the kingdom of God–a church.” (p22)

I am going to quote a long passage from early in the book because I think it sets the stage for how he understand the role of the book.

“I am demonstrating several convictions I have about ministry in how I deal with these texts. First, ministry finds its life in a deep engagement with Scripture. Ministry emerges naturally through a long habitation with Scripture. Good ministry is an art, requiring a well-funded imagination. In shaping a theological imagination, Scriptures must be more than a tool one uses to solve puzzles. Instead the deep structures of texts—the way they move, their rhythms, the peculiar way they name things—must become deep structures for ministers as well. This deep imagination, related to Scripture, is exactly what we find in Acts 15 when James summarizes the discernment of the community in relation to the inclusion of Gentiles.” (p25)

Love also assumes that most churches are not designed for practicing communal discernment.

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Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics by Joshua Mauldin

Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics cover imageSummary: A reappraisal of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s thinking around modernity and politics.

I regularly recommend the Audible Plus lending library, where Audible members can borrow several thousand audiobooks at no additional costs beyond the membership. Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics is a book that has been on my to-read list for a while, but currently, the Kindle version is over $70, and the Hardcover is $66. While I borrowed the audiobook, if I had purchased it, it was less than $10 when I picked it up. I am never going to make sense of that type of pricing disparity.

I was glad I listened to it, even if it may be a book that would be better read in print. It was a helpful book to think about and even had some aspect of discernment (and an ongoing reading project of mine) that I had not anticipated. But I do want to note that I did not love the narration. The British narrator did not pronounce some of the names and theological, philosophical, or political terms correctly. It is not just variations between American and British pronunciations. More importantly, I thought the tone of the narration was just off, but not so much that I didn’t listen to the whole book in just a few days.

Mauldin is concerned about the state of democracy and is using Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s political thought to grapple with how they addressed the changes in Germany. To start, Mauldin looks at the critiques of modernity by Brad Gregory, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas. I read After Virtue recently and have read several books by Hauerwas over the years. However, I did not have any background on Brad Gregory. The introduction to their ideas was thorough enough that I felt like I was clear.

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Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks by Priscilla Shirer

Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks cover imageSummary: Discerning the Voice of God is a spiritual discipline that can be learned.

I am about eight months into a project to understand what people mean when they talk about discernment in the Christian context and how it can be learned and discussed. If you include the books that I read as part of my training to become a spiritual director and my previous general interest reading, I have read about two dozen books, many of them more than once, on the topic of discernment. I certainly do not believe that I have a clear understanding of all aspects of discernment. I continue to find new aspects of discernment that I had not thought about. And I have about two dozen more books on my list. But I have a handle on some aspects oft I have tentatively committed discernment tha to. That matters because in the case of Discerning the Voice of God, there are many areas of agreement, but my problems primarily come in three areas and my tentative commitments influence those.

First I want to mention the good. She is right that we can learn about discernment. And I think she is right to suggest that goal of discernment is to see is not to see if we will make the wrong choice. This quote from toward the end of the book I think is right.

“But here’s what I want to encourage in you—the big message of this chapter, perhaps the big message of this book. Try never to forget it. Here it is … There’s no code for you to crack. No puzzle He’s waiting for you to put together. No stick He’s dangling in your peripheral vision, then snatching away when you turn your head toward it. He’s not sitting up in heaven with the cameras rolling and stopwatches ticking, testing whether or not you’re spiritually sharp enough to figure out the next move He wants you to make.”

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Praying With Discernment by Stephen Swihart

Praying With Discernment cover imageSummary: The way to pray better is to ask the holy spirit to give you the words.

I have been reading a wide range of books about discernment. While I am broadly interested in prayer, my focus in reading Praying With Discernment was on the discernment part, not the prayer part. I knew this was a self-published book and would likely disagree with much of it. I want to ensure I am not ignoring ideas about discernment because they come from streams of Christianity I am less attracted to.

This book is filled with stories of miracles. I have read many similar stories of praying for miracles and seeing them come to pass. I have personally seen some of those miracles, and I have, at times, been very attracted to the power of prayer shown in this book. I have listened to preachers advocate for the expression of power in prayer as a means of evangelism. But I have also watched the distorting effect of prayer when discernment seems to get lost.

I am also put off by some of the frivolousness of some of the prayers. This next story is an example.

“On another occasion, this friend took a small group with him to share their testimonies at a church. Before they arrived at their destination, they stopped for breakfast. Shortly after entering the restaurant the sky turned dark and it began to rain. In fact, it rained so hard that it would be impossible for any of them to get to the car without becoming completely drenched. When it was time to leave, my friend calmly and confidently said, “It will stop raining when we reach the front door. Let’s go.” Everyone got up and went to the front door. The instant the first person touched the door it stopped raining! Everyone got in the car without a drop of rain falling on them.”

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Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge by Dallas Willard

Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge cover imageSummary: Knowledge is not simply ideas that can be tested (naturalistic concepts) but also includes spiritual knowledge. 

I read Knowing Christ Today with a particular lens and purpose. I have been on a reading project to understand the Christian concept of discernment better. Part of what has arisen in my look at discernment is the role of the Holy Spirit and that type of spiritual confirmation that is not quite tangible through naturalism’s perspective on knowledge or experience. In the language of Ignatius, it is the consultation and desolation that you feel drawing you toward or away from Christ.

I picked up Knowing Christ Today over a decade ago when it was on sale on Kindle, but I have never read it. I had a long drive, so I also purchased the audiobook version to listen to while driving. I have a complicated relationship with Dallas Williard, which is why I think I had not read this previously. I very much respect his role in reawakening attention to the spiritual disciplines. But I also feel like we talk past one another quite a bit. I am a bit allergic to apologetics. While Willard believes that apologetics is best used to help Christians feel confident in their faith (not evangelism) and that he believes that change in behavior does have a relationship to our belief about the world (both of which I agree with), I still end up arguing with him (on the side of the anti-theist positions) when he veers into apologetics.

I have not read Alvin Plantinga, but I think that is part of who Willard is building on here as he develops the idea that spiritual knowledge is a valid form of knowledge. That narrow point, I think, is true; spiritual knowledge is a valid form of knowledge. But that does not really help to evaluate what spiritual knowledge is or when it is rightly invoked. It does not help in evaluating spiritual knowledge of Christianity compared to other religious understandings of spiritual knowledge or different perspectives within Christianity on spiritual knowledge. This means that I did not find Knowing Christ Today all that helpful to my project.

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A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks

A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks cover imageSummary: A memoir from sharecropper’s daughter to academic to retired anti-racist educator. 

I do not know how I ran across Catherine Meeks’ work. She was a professor at Mercer and then Wesleyan College. She worked as an organizer for the city of Macon and was the founder of Lane Center for Community Engagement and Service. Then, she retired in 2008 and started another career as an anti-racist trainer within the Episcopal Church, eventually founding the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. She again retired from that role this past December. In 2022, she received the President Joseph R. Biden Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Volunteer Service Award medal.

What I enjoy about reading memoirs and biographies is that I see the complications of lives, not just the awards or recognitions they receive. Catherine Meeks was born to a sharecropper and a teacher in rural Mississippi. Her mother worked as a teacher throughout her childhood, but it took her 18 years to finish her college degree. Her father was illiterate and died when she was a child. The background of growing up in poverty during Jim Crow matters to the rest of her story. But this is not simply a Horatio Alger story of growth and success. Esau McCaulley, in a podcast interview that I cannot find right now, talked about the problems of writing a memoir as a successful Black man. He talked about the fact that people want a happy ending. And even when there is a happy ending, the happy ending can be used as proof against those with a less happy ending.

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A Quaker Approach to Research: Collaborative Practice and Communal Discernment

Summary: An exploration of Quaker practices of group discernment in an academic or research setting. 

I picked A Quaker Approach to Research because the two main streams of Christian Discernment are the Ignatian or Quaker streams. I have a decent background in Ignatian discernment but only a little background in Quaker discernment. This book was free in the Kindle Unlimited library, so I was willing to try it even though it was not exactly what I was looking for.

There was a good introduction to the history of Quaker discernment. One of the new pieces of information I found was that early Quakers called themselves the “Religious Society of Friends of the Truth” before being known as The Society of Friends or Quakers. Discernment of the direction of the Holy Spirit or the “inward light” of God within them was central to the movement. Like the Ignatian stream of discernment, reason and emotion are part of the discernment process. Ignatian discernment is often done in partnership with a spiritual director, but Quaker discernment is usually done in a group, maybe with a facilitator, but a significant focus is on group silence or communal meditation. This communal meditation is part of the method of “moving evenly together.”

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Bearing God: Living A Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters by Marlena Graves

Bearing God: Living A Christ-Formed Life in Uncharted Waters cover imageSummary: At the funeral for her mother, Marlena Graves heard the Matthew 4 story about Jesus sleeping in the boat in a new way. And that frames the book’s discussion about what it means to live a Christ-formed life. 

I am currently on a reading project to explore what Discernment means for Christians and how we discuss and teach it. A couple of weeks ago, I asked for suggestions to add to my list of books. An internet acquaintance suggested Bearing God. Bearing God was on my list to read generally, but I had not considered it a book about discernment. So, I picked up the audiobook to listen to during a solo drive.

Too many books are fluffed up to add to the page count, but this novella-length book is exactly right. It has 80 pages of main content, and the audiobook was 2.5 hours. But I think I will put this at the top of my list of short, accessible books on discernment. It is not primarily a book about discernment. It is primarily a book about being a Christ-follower. But the book’s subtext, as well as one of the chapters, is explicitly about discernment. I previously read The Way Up is Down, and I have followed Graves on social media for years. Bearing God fits well with The Way Up is Down. Both are primarily about spiritual formation and how we incorporate spiritual practices into daily life, not adding them as yet one more thing to do.

It also matters that Marlena Graves is a Puerto Rican woman. I have been working on my 2023 reading stats. While I had almost exact gender parity this past year, the vast majority of the books I read were by white authors. Bearing God is a book that explores her life and spiritual walk, and her history, culture, and experience matter to how she perceives the world.

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Ignatian Discernment in Daily Life: Finding God in All Things by Timothy M. Gallagher

Summary: A series of lectures based on The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy Gallagher

I previously read Gallagher’s Discernment of Spirits as part of my spiritual direction training. Because I thought it was a helpful book, I wanted to revisit it as I am more intentionally investigating discernment. This format is a series of lectures based on the book, but it is not the book’s complete text. Gallagher is conversationally discussing the content of the book. It has been several years since I read it, but I remember many of the illustrations and points.

Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment are intended as a guide for spiritual directors to help those they are working with to see patterns as they seek to discern the movement of God in their lives. Most of the rules are, in one way or another, about Consolation or Desolation. Ignatius relies heavily on emotion and internal feelings as one of the tools of discernment. He does not simply accept that emotion or feelings are God’s method of speaking to us. Sometimes, feelings are just feelings. Sometimes, they are part of temptation. But sometimes, they are part of how God communicates with us. If God has created us with a personality, experiences, giftings, etc., then getting in touch with all of that will be part of becoming who God wants us to be.

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The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert

The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert cover imageSummary: An exploration of spiritual practices that can facilitate decision-making. 

Over the next several months I will do a reading projection around the concept, history, and teaching of Christian discernment. I picked up The Way of Discernment in part because one of the people I meet with for spiritual direction is processing through both individual and corporate discernment and it felt like a good time to do a personal deep dive.

I have some biases going into the idea of discernment that may change, but I want to say them out loud because they will likely keep influencing how I read going forward. First, I think discernment is a spiritual practice of seeking after God. Many people frame discernment as primarily about decision-making. And I fear that when the focus is the process and not the goal of seeking after God, we reduce what is a spiritual practice to a self-help checklist. Second, and related, developing discernment is about building character and virtue and orienting ourselves to rightly seeing God, not developing skills to interpret and decide or process information. Third, while I think there may be a “spiritual gift” of discernment, this is a general gift of the church, not limited to only a few. There are likely people who are better at discernment than others, but that doesn’t mean that discernment is only for the gifted. Fourth, the development of discernment is a part of the discipleship process. I started listening to a series of lectures on discernment by Timothy Gallagher, and he suggested that teaching about discernment was a third-level task. In this view, what comes first is to evangelize and introduce people to Jesus; then, once they have met Jesus, they need basic discipleship. Discernment was part of a more advanced discipleship work that requires people to be more intentional, introspective, and focused on their role in sanctification.

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