Called to Discernment

There’s a river flowing in my soul.  Telling me I’m somebody. 

Somebody who is called to be and do – what?    

That river, however you envision it, flows as well through the soul of this community.  Telling us that together we are somebody.  By what, and to what, are we called?

In our mission statement, we proclaim respect for our diversity and our commitment to being a place where all can safely learn and grow.  We acknowledge that we are called to service and to our higher selves, and we pledge our commitment to try to make the world a better place.

Today is stewardship Sunday.

We are called, today, to remember who we are.
We are called, today to celebrate, and to give thanks for the generosity and vision that bind us together, and to reaffirm our covenant. 

We are called to remember who we are.
To celebrate, and give thanks

And we are called to support and challenge one another.

A couple of weeks ago Eshu Bumpus was our guest.  Eshu is a story-teller, and he reminded us of the story of the Billy Goats Gruff – the three brother goats who pass over a bridge, one at a time, to get to greener pastures. 

The littlest billy goat goes first – and is accosted by the troll.  Do you remember the troll’s song?  The last two lines go something like – “You know that I’m the troll.  Filling my belly is my only goal.”  The littlest billy goat begs the troll to let him pass, because his bigger brother, coming along behind him, will make a much more substantial meal.

Along comes the middle brother.  He, too, convinces the troll to wait for a bigger brother coming along behind.  The biggest billy goat comes last.  He’s not taking any nonsense from anyone.  He lowers his head, and butts that greedy troll into the river, never to be seen again.

Eshu told us he puzzled over that story as a kid.  Something was wrong with it, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.  He also told us that he has five brothers, and that he’s one of the youngest.  When he was eight or nine, growing up in Roxbury, he stopped to watch a basketball game in a part of town where he didn’t belong.  He came this close, not to getting eaten, but to getting beaten – by fifteen enormous teenagers.  

Little Eshu was saved at the last minute by one of the leaders who asked if Eshu had a brother named Paul?  “Yup.”  “Do you have a brother named Bobby?”  A nod.  “Never mind – leave him alone.  He’s a Bumpus.” 

“I figured out what’s wrong with the billy goat story,” Eshu said.  “My big brothers went out ahead, in that community.  And they protected me.  In that story the littlest one gets sent ahead.  No protection.  The littlest one should never get sent in first.”  Eshu challenged us to think about that. 

Who are all the littlest billy goats getting sent in ahead where someone stronger should be in the lead?  In our personal lives?  In our social and political systems?  Here in this valley, or in Flint, Michigan, or Aleppo, Syria?  Why do they get sent?  And which billy goat am I, in any given situation, at any given point of time?  When I’m the biggest, or even the middle one, what responsibilities do I have?

Here we are called to support and challenge one another.

And we are called to comfort and be comforted,
To care for our living and honor our dead

The Friday before last I led a service in an Easthampton funeral home.  The woman who had died was a member of this Society for forty years, proud of her long-time role as our “head usher.”  Greg is playing some of her favorite music, these several Sundays.

In old age, she had become more isolated and compromised, physically and cognitively.  People here felt called to help.  Rich West and others patiently, heroically, and lovingly did their best in all kinds of ways to stave off the troll.  But that troll was persistent and cruel – filling his belly was his only goal.  Eventually she was committed to a nursing home in the eastern part of the state.

So we hadn’t seen her in several years.  We got very little notice of the funeral arrangements.  And there you were – the funeral director couldn’t hide his surprise.  Some who couldn’t make it sent me notes, sharing memories. 

Because as a community we are called to comfort and be comforted,
To care for our living and to honor our dead.

And we also are called to bear witness,
    to confront the forces of darkness and despair

There was a heightened sense of energy and urgency in our Great Hall this fall.  Some of you were deeply involved in electoral politics, heading out of state on weekends.  The climate action group continued to meet every other week; a climate emergency subgroup formed.  We joined an interfaith project to provide bag lunches for the homeless, adding our own twist of providing reusable water bottles.  We began to organize a group to support a refugee family. 

Then came the second Tuesday in November.  With it came shock, dismay, fear, disbelief – and a renewed resolve to bear witness and to act.  Members of this congregation have grieved with other faith communities in Northampton.  We have stood in the cold in demonstrations of protest or solidarity, have marched and organized, have written checks and letters and signed petitions. 

We have attended informational and planning sessions on sanctuary and support for our immigrant neighbors.  We are starting to learning more about institutional and systemic racism.  We must, we will, continue all of this work, as we can, as well and effectively as we can. 

Because we are called to bear witness, and to confront the forces of darkness and despair

And we are called to both uphold traditions,
     and shape them in new ways

We are called to learn, and unlearn,
    to listen, and discern

The original wooden church here at 220 Main Street was built in 1825.  When it burned down, in 1903, this building was constructed on nearly the same footprint.  The interior of this Great Hall is much more ornate that the original, however, with this fancy pulpit, and the columns, and decorative flourishes, and beautiful Tiffany windows.  Sometimes I wonder how those decisions were made.  Did they consider spending less on the hall, but making the building larger, expanding it toward the street? 

There is a UU congregation in eastern Massachusetts, a “First Parish,” whose church has burned down at least five times since the founding in the 1650s.  Every time they have rebuilt, as recently as the 1960s, they have followed the design for the original 17th century colonial church.  The sanctuary is on the second floor.  It has box pews, with latching doors.

Congregations of all religious traditions are tradition-bound.  Worship, governance, social events, who collects the offering – all resist new ways.  As do planning and budgeting.

Here’s how planning and budgeting work:  If the stewardship campaign does pretty well, it’s, “Whatever we did last year, plus a little more.”  In a less successful year, it’s, “whatever we did last year, but make it cost less.” 

So here we are, about to confront a tradition that needs some gentle shaping.  For the first time, quite possibly in this congregation’s history, the stewardship campaign has so far, and looks like it will, result in a sizable increase in available funds – even more than we have now, once everyone has pledged.  It’s a wonderful problem to have.  We are called to celebrate!  And give thanks!

We are called to do some thoughtful wishing

The discipline of thoughtful wishing might be called discernment.

Whether for an individual or a group, discernment is a process of “judging well” when facing a decision, a turning point, a crisis, or an opportunity.   It engages our whole selves – river flowing through soul, body, heart and mind.

The goal is not to solve a problem quickly.  The goal is to go deeper spiritually and to gain understanding.  It is more about listening and wondering than about talking and formulating answers.

It runs so counter to how we think about decision-making that it’s actually hard to explain.

It is as much an attitude as a process:  To enter into a conversation in the spirit of discernment we need to

Listen deeply to each other, leaving space to absorb what’s said, and
   attend to someone else without formulating our response
Use intuition and imagination
Notice and respond to our feelings, to the wisdom of our bodies
Trust one another
Be willing to make mistakes, and
Let go of the need to analyze every detail.
Have faith that the whole is greater, and more wonderful, than the sum of the parts

Often, in group discernment, new ideas emerge that are not the result of any one person’s analysis, but of the group’s engagement with the process, with one another and with whatever spirit may flow among them.

Often, people feel a deeper connection and commitment to one another and the vision that emerges. 

It’s a process that takes time. 

I think we have the ability to discern together.  And we have time.

Over the next few weeks, there will be several sessions in which you are invited to participate.  The first one is next Sunday, at 9.  There, you will wish, question, imagine and think together about how we are called to move forward.  My advice:  listen deeply to body, soul, heart and mind.  Leave room for silence to allow for deeper understanding, for the spirit to move and inspire. 

I’m guessing this makes at least one person out there antsy.  Politely, I know, you’re thinking, “Very nice, all that.  What are we going to DO?”

In late March and early April the Board will gather the wishes and ideas, along with the usual and necessary budget projections and spending recommendations from committees.  And they will enter into their own process of discernment about what to propose.  It may not be a detailed plan with every last dollar allocated.  It will be a plan and budget that address the challenges and opportunities we have identified:

  • to strengthen and deepen our outreach, social justice and environmental action and witness,
  • to communicate more effectively internally and beyond
  • to help everyone who wants to join us find their place here, with a special effort to welcome younger adults and families
  • and to recognize and support our deep and varied spiritual longings and needs.

I am grateful to and for you all.  For your willingness to step forward, for your generosity, for your commitments of love and time, and money.  This is a day to be grateful and a day to recommit.  Thank you. 

Let us remember who we are
Let us celebrate and give thanks
As we support and challenge,
Comfort and are comforted, care for our living, and honor our dead.

As we bear witness and confront the forces of darkness and despair
As we uphold cherished traditions and gently shape them in new ways

As we learn, and unlearn, listen, and discern

Let us celebrate and give thanks as we move forward together.

Will we hear the call that Howard Thurman calls “living up to the light?”  The call to “courageously pay with words and deeds for the world we desire?”

Let’s listen for the call, and discern together where it may lead us.