For those not paying attention, here’s a public service announcement: the United States is in a prolonged moment of societal crisis.

That seems a bit overblown, I know, but those on the right, left, and middle all seem to recognize that the bridges between us continue to disappear. What is the specific cause of this chaos, you ask? Well, the inability of our nation to agree upon the cause of the crisis is illustrative of the crisis itself.

A Nation at War

Perhaps, some claim, the cause is a media environment that has ruined our ability to hold civil political discourse. Still, many more would rather just pinpoint the cause as somewhere across the aisle or in a big white house.

Some point to the red spectre of socialism creeping across the millennial mind and the death of the American entrepreneur. Yet, others point to rampant income inequality, the looming student debt crash, and the sluggish wage growth.

Some look around threatened by the changing ethnic and linguistic demographics and point to the border as the source of decay. And yet, others point to current and historic mistreatment of people of color, women, and minorities as proof that America’s societal crisis is well deserved and long overdue.

We are, simply put, a nation at war with itself. Never before have so many battlefronts been opened. Who hasn’t seen the ravages of the wars on Christmas, women, men, guns, black lives, the flag, immigrants, “our” culture, and traditional American values. War, sadly, is our current go-to metaphor.

As people of faith, it can be easy to be caught up in these wars. A desire to be involved is not, in itself, wrong. Indeed, most people of faith recognize that it is essential to work for the betterment of their fellow human beings through the creation of healthy communities–be it a work community, church community, or national community.

Yet, digging into the trenches and lobbing hand grenades has proven about as useful as a medieval crusade. It’s created some warrior “saints,” but its left behind far more bodies. While we begin with good intentions, the form of our participation in such battles tends to be determined more by our gut reactions and media diets than our claim to follow Christ.

Discernment as a Way of Life

For most of my Pentecostal life, these sort of “gut reactions” were what I thought people meant when they said “discernment.” Discernment meant being able to tell what evil spirit was at work in a person’s life; it was to have the Spirit of God drop some tasty divine knowledge on you miraculously. In other words, discernment was a supernatural process.

While I still believe in the supernatural dimension of discernment, I have thankfully grown some in my understanding of it. Henri Nouwen described the process of discernment as something that “can be found in the books we read, the nature we enjoy, the people we meet, and the events we experience.” In other words, discernment is a process that invites us to an awareness of God’s presence in ourselves, our environments, our relationships, and in the happenings of the world. Simply put, it is a spiritual practice that trains us to see the story of God taking place all around us.

This process begins in prayer, the pactice of opening ourselves up to God. In prayer, we conect with and become like the source, sustainer, and lover of all things. Discernment does not just occur in intense “spiritual” moments, it is a process that is dependent upon habit and time.

It is not just an instantaneous feeling, it is a way of seeing and thinking about the world that asks us to reorient ourselves. A conversation with a friend can become a word from God to us, a mountain vista can be a divine invitation to rest, a newspaper article can be a call to action from God.

Discerning Beyond the Altar-call

If my perusal of Christian posts on Facebook tells me anything it is this: in this moment of societal chaos, we are tempted to act, or better yet react, before we have truly discerned anything. Somewhere a domino falls. We get swept along in the flood of rage, resistance, and recalcitrance, and when the tweet storms and hashtag campaigns subside, our national community is left a little more in pieces, and we helped.

Though it might be my biblical naivity, I tend to believe that truly Spirit-led actions are a force for reconciliation in a broken world, that God is not in the business of stirring up vitriol for the sake of self-satisfaction. Yet, too many times have I seen the Gospel be used as a club to win fights and a crutch to support poor arguments. In the fray, the leading of God’s Spirit somehow becomes our own sense of indignation.

I understand that in this cultural moment, a call to discernment sounds like a call to sit out the fight. This could not be further from the truth. A call to discernment is not a call to inaction or unworthy “patience” in the face of injustice. It is merely a reminder that amid this chaos, the Spirit of God is still at work, still speaking, and still guiding us. It is, if anything, a call for the humility, grace, and courage needed to face the various Scylla and Charybdises that confront our communities. It is an invitation to be the sort of person who looks beyond the “issues” for the in-breaking New Creation of God.

So, before you write that comment, pen that article, pick up that picket sign, or defend that political leader, perhaps you need to take a moment and to discern. What is God asking of you in that moment?

I’ve have seen things happen in a church service that have blown my mind. I’ve seen people speak so specifically towards personal issues that nothing but the power of God could have led them. In those moments, I could not help but to be full of hope for what is possible through God. I pray that more Pentecostals can learn to discern how the Spirit is working beyond the altar and in the public sphere. I pray that the power and love of God might invade our civic discourse. Perhaps then, we might inspire in society that same feeling of hope I found at the altar.


Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.


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Author: Alex Mayfield

Alex is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Mission Studies at Boston University, and he is a minister in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. He is married to an amazing wife who puts up with everything those two facts entail. When he's not reading or writing, he's usually dreaming of eating Chinese food.

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