Clearing the Decks

Fall is a time of getting started. To make room for what is next, what will you let go of? Join us for a service with Rev. Sue Browning where we’ll consider the ways we periodically need to clear the decks in readiness for our next steps.



Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning

Clearing the Decks

A few leaves are now coming down. Not coming down in the way the leaves will in a few months, but in a late summer sort of way. The leaves signal a transition, and it’s been 90+ degrees, and the heat will be back. It’s late summer. It’s a bit before something.

This week I’ve been particularly aware of the many cornfields on the eastern shore. Now the stalks are tall, more brown than green. Driving south on Rt. 50, just before Chesapeake College I glanced toward the college. I guess I inadvertently always do, but this week with the corn so tall I couldn’t see any of the buildings – multi-story buildings. It was disorienting for my view to be blocked. Another morning I was at a four-way stop. the corn was brimming over the edge of the field so far that I needed to inch forward to see my way clear to proceed. Tall and dense.

Locals have explained to me most of the corn I’m seeing is seed corn and won’t be harvested for a few months. (Ok, I’m from the suburbs, I had to ask.) One doesn’t ‘pick ears of corn’ in these dense fields; a combine will be through to clear the fields. In virtually one motion the combine will break the ears from the stalks, toss ears into a compartment to shake the kernels lose, then clean the corn, and then transport the harvest for transport or storage. As the combine clears the field, the unusable organic remains will be returned to the soil.

The fields will look tidy; cleared in a sweep.

Yet, the process of deciding what to plant, and how to prepare the fields, and then the planting, and tending, and praying for the right mix of sun and rain that led to the moment of harvest was anything but simple. The clearing is a rhythmic part of the cycle, as is the uncertainty. Will this be a year of accomplishment or disappointment for the farmer? No year is exactly like the one before. What will be learned, and changed?

We do know that once harvested, we’ll have a clearer vision of landmarks and traffic flow. For now, the corn is tall and dense.

What is around you might be ready, or almost ripe, to be cleared?

Maybe piles of paper on the counter or desk? Or broken lamps in the garage?

Are there spots where your path feels obscured – something in the way?  Decisions to be made on career or family? Discernment on roles in the community? Or your next steps on health or finance?

For now, just be aware. Don’t decide – just awareness. What might be right for clearing, or close?

When I wrote the sermon blurb for the website a few weeks ago, the title for this sermon was ‘Clear the Deck.’

Jack Harrald has given me a bit more perspective on this nautical term ‘Clear the Deck.’ Ships would ‘clear the deck’ (picture here the big wooden sailing vessels of old) in preparation for battle. When not in attack mode the deck was an active place, with sail making and repair, and cleaning equipment, and personal chores all in progress on this one shared. and often crowded, workspace. To ‘clear the deck’ was to remove all but what was essential. If not removable, tie it down. In battle clear space was needed to man the guns and guide the ship. And while under attack, anything extraneous could be turned to shrapnel.

‘Clear the Deck’ was a command to get both physically ready and mentally ready focused.

When I selected the title ‘Clear the Deck’ I was thinking of gearing up for the church and school years. What could be simplified? My tone:  Rally, gear up and let’s dive in together – aligned and ready to act.

As today neared however, somehow ‘Clear the Deck’ felt too harsh.  Is September a ‘return to reality’ (as I’ve heard it called, especially by our teachers!); do we need to feel it as a return to battle or action, or something close?

And after the losses of Ralph, and then Ken, and other struggles and transitions in your lives you have shared of late, ‘Clear the Deck’ felt too ‘Gung Ho’ and not gentle enough.

Mid-week I snuck in an edit and changed to ‘Clearing the Deck’ from ‘Clear the Deck’ – a bit more room for a sense of the continuous cycle of making room. A change in the verb form felt helpful.

Maybe for some, ‘Clear the Deck’ is what makes sense for you now. Marie Kondo has tried to convince us this is so (‘us’ meaning the whole world – it is on Netflix). She advocates deep tidying and de-cluttering as a path to joy. While she doesn’t specify a timetable, her perspective is clear: Less is more. Way less. Clear the deck. Go for it soon.

There are times we yearn for this efficiency. We yearn for a clear start; a readiness for action. In time, piles will re-appear, and emails will build up until the next break. The whirlwind of school years, and non-profit years, and, yes, church years may have this cycle.

As this summer starts its slow turn toward fall, where are you?

… in a clear the decks now mode?

… in a harvest the field when ripe mode? Or

… in a ‘collect provisions for the winter’ mode?

Maybe none of the above fits.

Sometimes we can offer ourselves permission to set aside what is not yet ready. Not yet ready for solving; not yet ready for clearing. A gentle ‘not right now’ makes the space we need.

In 2018 the RE team was making a go/no go decision on Peace Camp for the summer. Several past leaders were otherwise committed, and few campers had registered. Patty suggested we might want to “let Peace Camp lay” (lay pronounced ‘lie’) for the year. She shared she learned the term “let it lay” from a Quaker friend, who had explained It makes space for an activity to reenergize, simmer, or simply be missed.

The courage to not ‘do.’ The gentle blessing of less. And we did this with Peace Camp in 2018, and a wonderful, refreshed return of Peace Camp was held in 2019.

Advocating ‘doing less’ feels odd, right as we start a church year. We are excited about fresh ways for finding connection and deepening our spiritual ties. Still we need to consider the ‘why’ of clearing a deck. If we clear decks and do so only to find ourselves crazily busy weeks later, what is it we are clearing for?

A colleague a few years back decided to not use the word ‘busy’ for a year. She was (and still is) the lead minister in a large and active DC area congregation. She has two young children with aging parents out of state. Her ‘to do’ list was long. And too, she had a happy sense of life and purpose. Her plan was not the change her life practices, or even to make fewer commitments. She’d keep saying yes, or saying no as made sense for her. Getting rid of the word ‘busy’ was a choice to reframe her experience, and how she described her experiences.

A Washington Post article detailed the ‘Six Reasons You’d Be Happier If You Stopped Saying ‘Busy.’ (Megan Wycklendt, March 17, 2015). It noted that ‘I’m busy’ as a check in didn’t tell people how you were doing. The article said, “Busy is not a feeling… What are your true emotions associated with being busy? It’s okay to be honest. You may feel stressed-out or anxious.” An honest answer is good for yourself (self-awareness) helps those around your state of mind. The article offered that ‘I’m busy’ sound like a complaint, or act as a shield; a pre-emptive ‘no’ to avoid requests. I’m busy at times may reflect choices made in the name of a full life; a busyness that reflect thoughtful choices. The article concluded, “If you really feel like you need to sum your life up in one word, try using the words ‘active,’ ‘eventful,’ ‘involved’ or lively.”

And too, we know ‘I’m busy’ may not be a result of choices.

It’s good to know what we hope for in the work of clearing.

For you what feels ready to let go of? Where do you have choices? What is not quite ripe? Is something ready to set aside?

What helps us decide? Do you pray about a next right step?

Yes, UUs pray, or do something close. Ok, for some, it takes a little translating, and we don’t need to call it prayer.

In his book, “How I Pray,” author Jim Castelli looks across many cultures and finds “prayers…ultimately have the same purpose: to reach outside ourselves and touch…a power greater than ourselves … Every time we pray, we acknowledge that there are things in this world that that are outside of our control. Often we pray to bring change to ourselves.”

Call it meditation time or reflection time; an intentional pause to find perspective. Might the pause be a time to name a trust in a greater whole… Nature, the universe, your community, your family…the holy, the sacred, your sense of God?

What do you hear in the stepping back…in the pause?

In making choices, many find wisdom in the Serenity Prayer…“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”…It might include a conversation starter…”God grant me…”, or “Spirit of Life or Spirit of Love grant me…” Or not.

There is this version…“I seek the serenity to accept what I cannot change; the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. Here there is an openness in the seeking. The answer might come as new internal fortitude, or help from a friend. In the prayer, we become more aware. Where might we lean?

Or this version, “Life, show me the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. A call to ‘Life’ – a reminder of the interconnected web; a tie to the wider mystery and intricacies underlying our being which are beyond facts and logic. A sense we might find what we need in this greater sense of whole.

What helps us clear away underbrush and move toward what is essential?

What will best create the space you need for this fall?

Is there a pile or two you are ready to toss out (or sort and file)  to clear the deck. What might  make room for fresh lists that are a part of your eventful life? Not a clearing for battle, but clearing for new ways of connecting, and finding joy, and sustaining purpose.

Are you in a place needing to see how the pieces fit together, sensing how the letting go and weaving in are part of a longer process? Are you moving toward harvest with patience?

The rhythm…what’s been learned? What may need to change?

Once cleared, do you want to fill it back up in the same way? I’ve wondered what a year of doing less might feel like? Possibly ‘less’ would open a path for more depth; more ties to what is found to be most essential?

In invite you to watch the harvest to sense what might be, and to sense what might need to be.

May we each trust our own next right step. May we, together as a congregation, enter the coming church year in trust of one another as we discern what we need to be for one another and what we need to be for the world.

May it Be So

(Followed by sharing of thoughts on ‘Clearing the Deck’)

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