Sometimes the Answer Is ‘No’

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 28 February 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Reading

“Lost”1

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

—David Wagoner

Sermon

Here at Throop Church, our worship theme for the month of February has been vocation, the idea of being called to do something. Earlier this month, Reverend Tera spoke about how the over-arching themes of our lives can help us understand our vocation. And again just last week, she preached about the spiritual aspects of our chosen work.

Since we have now reached the end of the month, I decided that my subject today would be how we might think about those things that we feel called to do, but that we cannot do, or that we choose not to do, or that we must postpone.

The title of this sermon came from a discussion last month with an esteemed colleague, an ordained UU minister, who spoke about her path to ministry. There were several times in her life when there had been opportunities for her to leave her former career and enter ministry, or to further her progress in seminary, and she had not always been able to take advantage of them. “Because sometimes the answer is no,” she said. It seemed like a great title for a sermon on vocation.


What does ‘vocation’ mean? Most people today use the word simply to mean “your job.” But the oldest meanings of the word are in line with its Latin root, the verb vocare, to call. Originally, your vocation was that thing in life that God had called upon you to do. You might be employed to do many things, but you are called, perhaps, only to one.

For a humanist like me, this definition leaves something to be desired. The Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer speaks instead about those things that are compelling to the deepest part of you; the things that provide you with soul-filling satisfaction. That is the meaning of ‘vocation’ that I will have in mind today.

So how do you tell whether something is your vocation?

In the book of Exodus from the Hebrew scriptures, God speaks to Moses by appearing as a miraculous fire that burns within a bush but that does not consume the bush. God says to Moses, “Go to the King of Egypt, and bring my people the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt.”

Now, that‘s pretty clearly a call. But for most of us, our callings are not presented to us quite so directly. So my first story today will be about Parker Palmer’s experience in discerning his call.


In his book Let Your Life Speak, Palmer writes of how he had trained as an academic. He earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from U.C. Berkeley, and spent a few years as a community organizer and as a university professor. But then he burned out, and took a position at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia. He stayed there for more than a decade.

At one point during his stay at Pendle Hill, he received an offer to become the president of a local college. It seemed like this could be just the right position for him — and he thought it might be his calling.

But to be sure, he arranged what the Quakers call a “clearness committee.” This is a process designed to help a person explore more deeply what they feel about a life situation or a problem. It works like this:

You choose five or six friends or colleagues who you trust completely; people who you will be comfortable speaking to very frankly about your feelings. Your friends must agree to keep all the discussions you have with them about your question completely confidential. You find a quiet space, and for three hours, your friends — quietly, and without looking directly at you — will ask you open and honest questions about the situation you are considering. Not problem-solving questions, not detail-oriented questions, not those things that aren’t really questions at all but instead are thinly-disguised bits of advice. No, none of those. The questions they ask should be questions that invite you to think differently about your situation, to change your perspective, to be honest with yourself. Questions like:

If this problem were a landscape, what would it look like?”

Or, “Where in your body do you feel this question?”

Or, “What images come to mind when you think of this problem?”

The questions are important — but more so is the space between them. You and your friends must be comfortable in silence, because it may take you a while to think of how you want to answer — or whether you want to pass. While you think, your friends remain silent.

Your friends will listen to your answers — but more importantly, you can listen to your answers. When you actually let yourself speak your thoughts out loud, instead of leaving them to murmur quietly in the back of your head, it is easier to recognize them for what they are.


Parker Palmer writes that his clearness committee asked him many questions to help him reflect on whether or not to take this job as a college president. It wasn’t until halfway through that he got a question that allowed him to change his perspective. It was this:

What would you like most about being president?”

A completely innocuous question, you might think. But Palmer found himself hesitating to answer it directly. After a pause, he listed many things that he would not like about the job… but his questioner noticed this, and asked again: “What would you like most about being president?”

When he had to be honest with himself, when he had to think deeply about what he wanted, he came up with an answer that he would have been too embarrassed to speak out loud if he hadn’t trusted his friends completely. He replied,

“Well, I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the [news]paper with the word president underneath it.”


Here, today, we can laugh at that answer. It’s a pretty ridiculous reason for wanting to make a major life change. But Palmer’s clearness committee did not laugh. They remained quiet, so that Palmer himself could hear the words that had come from his own mouth.

Finally, the original questioner asked a followup: “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?” That did break the silence with laughter, but it also helped Palmer see and acknowledge his own situation.


Parker Palmer’s experience gives an example of one reason to say ‘no.’ Upon reflection, we may find that what we thought was a calling — what we thought was something that answered a deep need of our own soul — we may find that this thing was in fact nothing of the sort. Perhaps what we thought was a calling was instead motivated by our pride, or our ego — parts of ourself that might not be the best guides in life. Or perhaps what we thought was answering our own deep needs was instead answering the expectations of other people.

It’s not practical to form a clearness committee for every life choice we face. But we can develop a habit of reflection. When I have been troubled, I’ve found it very helpful to find a quiet time in which to reflect; a time when I could ask myself open questions, and really listen to the answers; a time in which I force myself to notice when I am uncomfortable with a question, and to investigate the sources of that discomfort.

Taking this quiet time for reflection reminds me of today’s reading. “The forest breathes. Listen. […] The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”


There are other reasons one might say ‘no’ to a calling. Tien Chiu is a talented weaver and textile artist, whose handwoven wedding dress is part of the permanent collection of the American Textile History Museum. She is also a writer who has blogged about her craft and her creative process, and whose first book is coming out later this year. She is also a chocolatier — every fall she creates about 100 pounds of masterful chocolate bon-bons — the best I have ever tasted — that she gives to friends and family who donate to a chosen charity. And, like me, she has a degree in mathematics from Caltech, which is one reason why I know her. With her permission, I will tell you part of her story.

Clearly Tien is talented in many areas. But these many talents led to expectations from friends and family that were hard to set aside. “How could you not do X?”, they would ask. “You have such potential in it!” She writes:

Every human has potential in many disciplines, and only time to pursue a few. If I spend eight hours a day practicing writing, I may become a great poet, but I will never be a great mathematician. If I spend eight hours a day practicing writing and the other eight thinking about number theory, I may manage both but I will never have time to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, develop intimate relationships, or engage in social activism. So I expect to go to my grave a huge well of unused potential. If I lived 1000 years, I’d still never live up to my potential. I’m no different than any other person in that regard […].

How do Tien Chiu’s words relate to vocation? Implicit in the idea of a calling is the idea that there is one best thing for each person to do. But what if there are several things that answer deep needs in your soul? If you devote yourself to one of them, you may have to put the others on the back burner.

Tien writes:

[Y]ou have to accept that you will never fulfill all of your potential, and that you won’t ever achieve all the things you could achieve. It’s a disappointing, but also freeing, realization: then you can live your life the way you want.

You might need to say ‘no’ to one calling, in order to say ‘yes’ to another.


On the other hand, sometimes the answer to a call may be neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’, but rather: ‘not yet.’ Following a call usually means giving up something else; and sometimes that ‘something else’ can’t be given up so easily. Maybe that ‘something else’ is the job that pays for our food and housing; maybe that ‘something else’ is being present for our children or our loved ones; maybe that ‘something else’ is the social support network we have built up in our community, a network we cannot afford to leave behind in order to move across the country. In these cases, we have to hold on to the idea that someday our needs and responsibilities might change — and that someday, as our meditation hymn has it, someday this rose will open.


So there are many reasons why we may have to answer ‘no’ to a call. But we can still draw value and meaning even from a refusal, or a postponement. The very act of thoughtfully considering a call can help us rebalance priorities and see the world in a new way.

Let me tell you two related stories about my life to illustrate this.

When I was in graduate school looking for math problems that I could work on for my thesis, I would read through journals and make photocopies of articles that looked like they might be a source of interesting topics. Even after I graduated, I continued to gather up articles that looked like they might one day be useful. But a few years ago, our file cabinets at home were getting overcrowded… and two whole file drawers were taken up with math articles that I had saved because I thought they might someday be useful.

I decided that it was time to get rid of them. If I hadn’t looked at them in 20 years, I was not likely to need them — and nowadays, you can find almost any math article online.

But even knowing all this, it was very hard to put those articles into the recycling bin. I had grasped on to them; they felt like a part of me, part of my identity as a mathematician, because I was holding on to them so tightly; and letting go was very hard. But when I did, I felt a great spaciousness — not only did we have so. much. room. in our file cabinets again, but there was also a new spaciousness in my mind and in my heart, room for new ideas.

In a number of religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism — there is the concept of non-attachment. In these traditions it is seen as good to not desire things, or people, or ideas. Desire leads to suffering.

There’s an often-told story about this, that seems to have originated as an anecdote told by the psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein about a visit he had with Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher from Thailand. Epstein writes:

Before saying a word [in answer to someone’s question], [Ajahn Chah] motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, “Of course.” But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.

It is tempting to think too literally about this story, to view it as a warning only against attachment to physical objects and possessions. But letting go of objects is infinitely easier than letting go of ideas, letting go of images of ourselves.

Around the same time I had recycled my file drawers of math papers, I had also entered seminary. I had chosen to go to Starr King School for the Ministry because I thought it was very likely that I would not be able to graduate without having been transformed in some way — I felt that the school would help me rethink my basic idea of myself, and help me live less in my head and more in my heart.

One morning, while thinking about this, I suddenly realized: If I’m going to school specifically to be transformed, well, then, I might change my mind about some things — maybe even about some things I strongly believe in. Those of you who have heard some of my other sermons2 know how strongly I identify as a humanist, and an atheist. I thought, “I’m going to a seminary. It’s possible my theology might change. It’s possible that I might end up believing in something called God.”

In all honesty, I thought that it was pretty unlikely that I would end up becoming a theist. But I also thought that I should be prepared for the possibility.

The difficulty of letting go of 20 years of math papers was nothing compared to the difficulty of letting go of 40 years of self-image. But releasing my grip on this self-image did not make it fall away. After nearly two years of seminary, I’m still a humanist — only now I’m more confident that it’s because that’s who I am. Being willing to let go of some self-conceptions made it easier to tell who I really am.

Do you remember, in Charles Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol, how the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Marley? Marley’s ghost is fettered by a long heavy chain made of cash-boxes and ledger books and iron purses. Marley warns Scrooge: “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

The ideas and self-images that we cling to are like the links in Marley’s chain. We forge them of our own free will, and they weigh us down.

Maybe answering a call is not the most important thing. Maybe it is more important to live our lives ready to answer a call — to live life with our arms open, embracing the world and all its possibilities, without grasping tightly to any of them.

Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.

Amen.


Image credit: Luis Del Río Camacho, posted on unsplash.com under the Creative Commons Zero license. Original here.


  1. From David Wagoner, Collected Poems 1956–1976 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976) and Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999). I believe the inclusion of the poem here falls under Rule 6 (“Poetry online”) of the Poetry Foundation’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry
  2. This one being an example where I discuss my own humanism. 

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