The Gift We Actually Need

Sermon by Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton


Does anyone here recall taking interest and aptitude tests in junior high or high school? The tests often required completing surveys as they teased out – What might you be good at? What might you enjoy? Do you prefer working alone or depending on a team? Do you want to soak in detail?

Responses to these surveys were melded with job options and presto recommendations were spit out. I recall my Dad describing an aptitude test that he took in the 1940s. The results highlighted his decent spatial and logic skills, his strong ability in math and (somehow factoring in he was male) directed him to study engineering or technical support.

Basic vocational assessments go back to the beginning of the 20th century. Some who took the tests may have found direction for further training and education. Many likely put the results in a drawer; not everyone had open choices on which jobs to pursue – markets and systems limited some. My dad studied engineering, worked as a civil engineer for five years, and hated it.

The book “What Color Is Your Parachute?” by Richard Bolles was published in 1972. It asked some additional questions, ones that may have been of use to my dad. Bolles recommended that before starting a job search, the reader needed to do some soul searching. He encouraged, “…job hunters must look inward, figuring out what they would most love to do — and where, geographically, they want to do it.”

After the first few editions of the book, Bolles added a self-inventory to help people identify “their skills, traits and preferences.” What Color Is Your Parachute? is a book about discernment. A recent NY Times review of a recent edition of the book notes “…the book endures because Mr. Bolles focuses not only on the job search process, but the emotional and psychological side of job hunting.”

I learned the author is an ordained Episcopalian minister. He wrote the book in a time of transition when he and other ministers needed other work. He found his niche – his ministry if you will – in helping people hear their inner voice on career and then offering tools to carry out their deepest wishes.

Interestingly the title ‘What Color is Your Parachute?” came as he worked with people in considering transitions. A review notes, “when he was first gathering information for the book, he would hear people say that ‘they were ready to bail out’ of their jobs. At one point he playfully responded, ‘Well, then, what color is your parachute?’”

Bolles was inviting others to go deep…to go deeper…to connect with themselves, and use that grounding to connect with the world’s needs. And he knew that at times such discernment would mean major changes in direction – transitions worth making, but times when the details of how to move forward mattered.

This skill of deep discernment is needed in our lives well beyond career choices. Discernment of this nature is a spiritual practice. Discernment skills help us go deeper, as we assess and choose, and listen to guidance from deep within.

It sounds fancy when we are making a decision and say we’re “discerning what to do.” In his book “Discernment” Henri Nouwen point out that ‘deciding; and ‘discerning’ are not synonyms. We decide to eat a muffin or cereal for breakfast. We decide to take the highway or side road on our way to the store. When we’re faced with deeper challenges and forks in life, or complex situations, discernment practices put values and life purpose at the center of the conversation.

In a Christian context, priest and spiritual director Henri Nouwen describes the contrast between decision making and discernment this way:

“Reaching a decision can be straight forward: we consider goals and options; maybe we list the pros and cons of each possible choice; and then we choose the action that meets our goals most effectively.”

“Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which lead us further away.”

I hear God in this guidance as a point of highest good or goodness; God as love, the essence of holy. Through a UU lens and our UU principles we might tweak Nouwen’s words this way…

(ADAPTED version of quote…)  “Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align so we can affirm and promote our own inherent worth and dignity, and we can affirm and promote the worth and dignity of others. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion and for ourselves and other people and which lead us further away. We can ask what leads us to deeper reality of interconnection, and what leads us further away?”

Discernment is in part an individual exercise. It is seeing self, and hearing self, and finding clarity in vision. At least it starts there. It is knowing that listening for own resolve matters. Of late we hear of hear of being caught in ‘echo chambers’ and ‘bubbles’ – the price of limiting contact and inputs to who and what we pretty much agree with. We’re less susceptible to echo chambers if we’ve done, and are regularly doing, our own soul searching.

Spiritual direction is a discernment process that helps uncover another layer of ourself. Sometimes it means embracing darkness – our challenges and points of fear – and then moving to find light. Nouwen helps us understand that this is the work of spiritual direction, where an intentional process helps us listen for what is being revealed. Nouwen finds through this process gears can shift and “what is previously important can lose power over us.”

It is a gift to ourselves when we make space for ourselves to feel seen and heard. Discernment is a gift of this reflection.

Discernment requires personal reflection; too thrives when we do discern in company of others. It is a gift to be with others who empathize, and who see and help us see our own spiritual gifts.

One question of spiritual discernment is ‘Who is my spiritual community?” This is different than ‘who is my church”- though hopefully overlap!

We do the work of discernment with others to help our own centering and sense of resolve, but too to ask, “Where are we being led together?”

Work in small groups can support discernment. Groups create possibilities when we let others know us deeply. It creates a chance for empathy and people who can witness to our experience. Who do we allow to know us? And often a harder question, who is allowed to hold us accountable?

Where do you have trusted places you have to share questions? Where do you practice listening in layers? Where are you heard in layers?

One, but by no means the only, way to find partners in discernment is through small group ministries within the larger context of a congregation. This congregation has one active small group ministry – our Soul Matters group, and as interest and leaders are ready we can create more. Other models have been used here in the past.

A typical Soul Matters group – an Inner Circle, a Covenant group, a Chalice circle – many names – all encouraging the asking of big questions. These groups are intentional in their format – making space through opening and closing practices, and for our Soul Matters group using materials offering (nationwide) each month with questions and quotes. Structured to help go deeper, flexible to help group members feel seen and heard, and to do likewise for others.

One minister using the Soul Matters approach notes, “Soul Matters changed the way we did small groups. It moved us from analyzing ideas to looking carefully at our own daily living. Soul Matters doesn’t ask “What do you think?” It asks “How do you want to live?”

(If you have interest in forming an additional small group, please let Gayle Scroggs, Nancy Sawyer or me know.)

Why might 2017 be a year to focus on personal and community discernment?

The transitions around us – political in particular – feel different this year. Times are different. I’m working hard to listen, and hear fuller stories and grasp others fears and hopes. Rhetoric is high and I sense our uncertainties are being processed up high in our heads, and we’re processing deep in our gut – emotions intense.

Discernment is about an intentional look for deep and abiding guideposts in these times of media saturation when our heads and deep guts are working hard, maybe too hard. Discernment processes can help us make choices that align with our deep principles – using head, and heart – knowing of fear, and finding hope and light. Achieving grounded discernment takes time. It is about being open to the ‘what’s next?’ that is true for us.

Our gift to one another can be this making of space…to see one another…to build trust, and care.

Our questions from earlier (from Nouwen’s book “Discernment”) that can be asked alone; or asked together…

“Beneath all of my doing, who am I being?

Who am I?

To whom do I belong?

Who are my people, and what is my community?

What is my deepest desire for my life and for the lives of those I love?

What inner voices am I listening to?

What brings me joy?”

There is value in the creating of time and space for discernment – for seeing our own spiritual gifts, and for grounding our views, and seeing where what we have to offer – wherever we are on our life’s journey. Where does our desire meet the needs of the world? What is our next step individually, and what can we do collectively?

Earlier we told the story of the caterpillar slowly transitioning from one form to another. And we hear the story as told by friend Ellen, his spiritual director of sorts. Ellen sensed that a transition would happen. Her role was to accompany the caterpillar to make space and carve out time.

We can be one another’s partners as we walk together and work out the big questions and challenges of life. Who will hold us until our next steps, and who will we hold in their discernment? Good questions as we enter 2017 together.

Blessings for a love-filled year.

May It Be So

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