The Still, Small Voice

September 28, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

 

How many decisions do we make per day, and how do we make them? 

Some decisions seem to be made for us: the kids need to get to school, so the parent or caregiver gets out of bed and starts the day.  The car behind you is following too closely, so your survival instinct says to push on the gas and switch lanes.  If the dog doesn't get walked, I don't like the consequences so I walk him no matter how crummy it is outside.  We're hungry, so we head to the kitchen for something eat.  Did we actually decide to eat before that we took that first bite?

It hardly feels like it.

Many of our decisions are made in just this way, unconsciously and reflexively.  But when it comes to the more important questions, questions about relationships, about long-term commitments, about life direction, about how to proceed as a community – we want our decision-making to be conscious, responsive rather than reactionary, and above all, guided by wisdom. 

President George Bush took a lot of heat last year when he proclaimed himself "The Decider," but on a smaller scale, we are all "deciders." The consequences of our decisions vary in scale, but we make hundreds of them every day.  Whether we make them consciously or unconsciously, grounded in wisdom, imagination, fear, ego or a combination of all these, shapes our lives and our world in profound ways.

One of the first decisions you will have to make listening to this sermon about spiritually-grounded decision-making, or discernment, is to decide what you believe about wisdom.  Is wisdom innate, does each person possess it? Why do some people have it in greater measure than others? Is it earned by experience or bestowed as a gift of birth? Is it, as the ancients believed, a transcendent entity that exists beyond us as well as within us?

Your conclusions will vary, but let us consider one basic premise together: when it comes to making important decisions, the combined wisdom of a group who gather for the specific purpose of taking counsel together is greater than the wisdom of any one individual alone considering the same question or issue.  This is the basic guiding principle of group discernment, a practice that I studied this past May at Andover-Newton Theological School.

 The class was called "Grounded in God: Decision-Making and Discernment in Congregations and Organizations" and proceeded from the assumption that decision-making is not just an intellectual exercise or physiological reaction, but also a spiritual act. 

Let me therefore ask you the same question that my professor, Margaret Benefiel, asked our class the first day we met.  She said, "Do you remember a time when you felt spiritually grounded in a decision-making moment? … If so, how did that feel?"

After thinking for a moment, the class responded with words like connected - glowing -  hopeful – alive – integrated – confident - serene.

Do you notice the physicality of those responses?

Being spiritually-grounded feels good and right in our bodies, a fact that always reminds me of that wonderful quote by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience."  Mind, body and spirit are all connected. 

Professor Benefiel's next question, as you may have guessed, was "And now, do you remember a time when you felt spiritually ungrounded in a decision-making moment, and what did that feel like?"

The responses came out fast and easily this time – we all remembered such a occasion:

Angry – resentful – manipulated – frantic – frustrated – unconscious – invisible – inadequate – threatened.

You've been there, I'm sure.  For some reason or another, you've been there. Making decisions from an ungrounded place doesn't feel good.

We are all Deciders.  And according to the heroic, Western model of how our lives should be lived, the admirable person is the one who decides alone, who thinks things through (it's all "up here" in the head), and who impresses everyone with the strength and clarity of his or her conclusions reached in noble solitude. 

"This and such shall be done by my wise decree."

"I have thought this through and I know what we should do."

This style of decision-making is what many people expect from strong leaders, from good parents, and even from any God worth worshiping. "Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt honor the Sabbath and keep it holy."  We've all known the Decider aspect of the Biblical God all our lives. How come so few of us have heard the story Stuart told earlier about how the wisdom of God came as "a still, small voice" to Elijah in the cave? The still, small voice doesn't come "up here." It comes here, to the heart. We need to engage both mind and heart when making wise decisions.

Quaker teacher Parker Palmer partially explains the poverty of the Lone Ranger-Decider tradition when he writes, "In Western culture, we often seek truth through confrontation. But our headstrong ways of charging at truth scare the shy soul away." (A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward the Undivided Life, 92).  Yes, and            something worse: when the individual feels that it is a sign of weakness to consult with others, to muse, to reflect, to consider, to take counsel, the movement of the spirit of Wisdom -- which I deeply believe is found in the creative exchange between discerning people -- is hindered. 

Listen to how poet Marge Piercy puts it, in her poem "Councils" --

We must sit down

and reason together

Perhaps we should sit in the dark.

In the dark we could utter our feelings.

In the dark we could propose

and describe and suggest.

In the dark we could not see who speaks

and only the words

would say what they say.

No one would speak more than twice.

No one would speak less than once.

 

Thus saying what we feel and what we want,

what we fear for ourselves and

each other into the dark,

perhaps we could begin

to begin to listen.

 

The work of discernment is the work of beginning to begin to listen. 

 Sometimes in our democratic process tradition, we think we are engaged in discernment when actually we are engaged in discussion at best, and debating and grand-standing at worst.  While I cherish our congregational form of governance that invites us all to participate in decision-making, and which uses Roberts Rules of Order to organize our gatherings, I have to agree with authors Danny Morris and Charles Olsen when they suggest that our democratic process is one "in which people who are verbal, rational, and extroverted have a decided edge" (Discerning God's Will Together: A Spiritual Practice For the Church, 14).  I've been thinking about that a LOT lately, and I hope you will, too. 

After all, who is that tends to show up and to and speak up at our congregational meetings? Who doesn't show up? Whose voices often are not heard?  When we gather, are we generally prepared to listen for the wisdom generated by many attentive minds and hearts, or are we there armed with talking points, sometimes even loaded for bear, thinking that our job is to plow through the agenda and get to a vote as quickly as possible? Believe me -- I appreciate a short, effective meeting as much as the next person, and I happen to think that this congregation does a splendid job of promoting healthy process, coming to meetings prepared, and hearing many perspectives.  But again, I think Morris and Olsen have something worthwhile for us to think about when they ask,

"If the church has only one approach for conducting meetings, can it receive a vision, respond to an answered prayer, determine the highest calling, or ascertain an ultimate purpose? These will not be decided by popular vote, but will be spiritually discerned."

How might it strengthen the church if we held regular discernment gatherings in addition to agenda-driven business meetings? 

 

There are many different ways to engage in group discernment.  I learned one in our class called Clearness Committee; a process that I then taught this summer to a group of women from this congregation.  In Clearness Committee, a small group begins by holding a silence together, and then listens without judgment and without interrupting as one person describes an issue on which they seek clearness.  After another period of silence, during which the Clearness Committee listens for the "still, small voice" of wisdom, they then share insights as they arise.  If nothing comes to them, they remain silently supportive (which is considered a worthy contribution). 

An insight may come as a memory, as a quote, as a snippet of a song, as a question, or in any number of ways.  The person seeking clearness simply takes everything in and does not respond.  In order to help them remember what is being said, another member of the group records the shared insights.

This is not a problem-solving exercise. There is no need for fixing or giving advice.  No one disagrees because there is nothing to disagree about.  Each participant speaks into the circle their own truth as they receive it, all in the spirit of attentive love.  Clearness Committee creates a very different feeling than a regular meeting.  For me, being the one both seeking clearness and sharing insights was deeply moving and created a great sense of trust, intimacy and appreciation between myself and the others in my class.  It was powerful.

The beauty of group discernment is that it has very practical and helpful applications in the "real world." Discernment process can work in churches, public institutions, at work, in the family setting – the applications are really endless.

Let me tell you about a time that a professional organization had a meeting and used something like a Clearness Committee process to help them with an important decision. It was a meeting of employees of Mass General Hospital about five years ago, and everyone from custodians to administrators to surgeons was in attendance.  This was not business as usual.  A cardiologist had recently been murdered in the building by a receptionist who then turned the gun on herself.  The meeting was to address security and to try to prevent any further acts of violence.

An interesting function of this group – which meets regularly and not just during crises -- is that it rotates leadership from among its members.  Everyone takes a turn leading, regardless of "status" in the organization: custodians, nurses, administrators, surgeons.   This time, the chaplain was invited to lead, and requested that the gathering begin with silence or silent prayer (as each preferred). According to one of the people who attended that meeting, the tone of the gathering immediately shifted from one of high anxiety crisis management to one where everyone present was able to get in touch with the soul of the organization --  a place, after all, whose mission is healing.

As they proceeded with the meeting – and with four meetings following that one --  the hospital representatives carried out their conversation in the spirit of discernment.  Knowing that they were under pressure from the community to react quickly to the crime, the group nevertheless decided to take their time reflecting on the violent act, and in fact, to define for themselves what they believe constitutes violence in general.  They also decided to wait for the Boston Police to deliver a full report of their investigation, and each agreed to limit their exposure to media coverage so as not to provoke their own fear response.

Perhaps the wisest commitment the group made was to observe a moment of silence after anyone spoke.  By intentionally creating an environment that fostered reflection, patience, peacefulness and respect, the group eventually came to the conclusion that they did not want to make any changes in hospital policy.  They did not want to go "into lockdown" and add armed guards and metal detectors to the hospital environment, as some had initially recommended, because they regarded this crime as a random act of violence.  To radically change their hospital environment as a result of it, they decided, would be to disrupt the comfort of their patients and their families, and to badly compromise their hospital's mission to deliver care in a "safe and compassionate environment."        

That's what can happen when we engage in mutual discernment and respond rather than react.

So many decisions to make all the time, under so many different and demanding circumstances.  We can tackle our decisions and wrestle them to the ground and settle things that way.  We can think and think and drive ourselves to distraction trying to figure things out ourselves.  We can toss a coin. We can close our eyes and point: eeny meeny minie moe! We can tell someone else we don't feel like making any decisions and have them do it for us.

Or we can sit together with trusted others, create a safe, inviting space to seek wisdom together, and invite the shy soul to speak in the form of the still, small voice. 

As the poet says, Perhaps we can begin to begin to listen.