Henri Nouwen’s Discernment stands as a collection of his teaching of spiritual discernment, relying heavily on his influence of Thomas Merton, as collected by his followers posthumously. This book helps me in three ways as I approach our Advance. First, by helping me personally discern further direction and nuances of my intended studies in innovation in ministry. Scond, by giving me a voice and posture for the inherent spiritual nature of innovation. While hundreds of books highlighting innovation exist for the business world, Nouwen, helps frame my studies of innovation with a spiritual approach. And last, by helping me discern my own identity as an innovator.
Discernment for My Research
In short, Nouwen suggests a question from Merton for an overall approach to seeking discernment: “Where is God being revealed in this book or in this experience?” (p. 43). I find framing the Advance as first a spiritual experience helpful. It’s far easier to approach the time as educational, cultural, and even as an adventure, but there remains an invitation to learn something about God’s ways, his will and his character (p. 56). This can happen, as Nouwen attests, through personal communion with God that leads to a community approach to discernment. This communal aspect stands as a great rebuke to the Western world’s individualistic tendencies. I will need to “pay attention to the people God puts in [my] path if [I] want to discern what God is up to…” (p.69). These “people” mentioned are primarily my cohort, then moving in concentric circles away, other cohorts, the prescheduled people we will encounter, and finally the “random” encounters. I am trying to buck the segmented thought that my learning will come only through our collective reading, personal study and joint calls. I push back against Nouwen’s dichotomous thinking between nature and inhabited spaces. While God might meet some in a walk through the woods, there’s also something about seeing a mass amount of humans – the only part of creation that holds the mark of being made “in the image of God” – in their approach of the good life. What might God reveal through these people, even those in need we pass on the street? How might this help direct, focus, add nuance to, and enhance my intended area of study? Even this week, how might others speak into my area of study as I seek to answer the question, “How does innovation, namely Design Thinking, interface with Christian ministry?”?
Discernment’s Interface with Innovation
I’m careful not to think of my studies of innovation like cooking a dry piece of meat needing an injection of juice. I’m not seeking to take the current secular approach to innovation theory and merely “inject it with Jesus,” or find proof texts in the Bible for modern innovative principles. I’m asking the question, how might innovation theory help and bless and be used as a tool for discerning God’s will in ministry. Nouwen explicitly states his purpose of discernment by adding, “The purpose of discernment is to know God’s will, that is, to find, accept, and affirm the unique way in which God’s love is manifest…” (p. 8). I see Design Thinking – a user-centered design process of solving problems – as a means to discover God’s will. In this process, developing empathy is the first stage. Discerning another person’s story, God’s work in their life, and defining their problem to be addressed in ministry is inherently spiritual. Empathy is completely an others-centered approach to relating, and we must constantly repent of self-obsession, whether thinking too highly of ourselves, or as Nouwen proposes, thinking of ourselves as never being enough or as not lovable (p. 26). We must “resist the darkness,” another Nouwen phrase, in the pursuit to engage with others.
Continuing down the path of Design Thinking, creating multiple prototypes and potential solutions can have an heir of fickleness or lack of certainty. The argument might go, “If one is seeking discernment, might they be able to discern God’s single solution to move forward?” I would argue that the process of creating hypotheses, and then creating multiple short-term tests is the path of discernment. The posture here is quite reliant on the Lord and the prayer could be something like this. “Lord, I seek you for direction and I humble myself and admit I don’t know all of your ways, I admit I don’t stand as the divine source for a solution to this problem. As we discern and make thoughtful hypotheses to how you might be at work, give us discernment along this path through the upcoming prototypes, and may this process lead to the flourishing of all. Amen.”
Discerning an Identity as an Innovator
Lastly, to follow Nouwen’s teaching of finding discernment through the people we encounter through this program, I point to a recent interaction with a friend who provided keen insight, paralleling Nouwen’s chapter on Discerning Identity (pp. 131-143). My friend mentioned that usually we approach behavioral change, and then when that change has taken place, we assume the identity. When asked if a personal attempting to stop smoking is offered a cigarette, they might answer, “No thank you, I’m trying to quit.” This response reveals the identity as a smoker-who-is-trying-to-quit. There is more power in assuming the identity, my friend explained, then letting our behavior stem from that identity. Back to our example, the person could simply respond, “No thanks, I don’t smoke,” or “No thank you, I’m not a smoker.” Their identity as a non-smoker leads more potently and naturally to the behavior of not smoking. To translate that to my scenario, I am tempted to first endure the rigors of the program, then assume and declare the identity of an innovator. While there are several errors in this thinking, it would be much more powerful to, on the onset, discern and embody a God-given, God-directed identity from which to live out the studies and training over the next three years. I hesitantly and humbly “try on” the identity of “one who helps dreams become reality” and invite others to be a part of the discernment of that identity as well as the courage to live that out to the fullest.
(As we take steps into each other’s studies, an introductory step into mine – Design Thinking – can be found here, as one author simple answers the question, “What is Design Thinking”)
Nouwen, Henri. Discernment. New York: Harpen Collins, 2013.
“What is Design Thinking?” Interaction Design Foundation. Accessed September 9, 2019. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/design-thinking