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Signs, Wonder…and Grace

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You can watch the video of Pastor Kris’ sermon, “Signs, Wonder… and Grace,” HERE.

Who has heard of a Clearness Committee? Have any of you experienced a Clearness Committee? Either as a person of focus, or a member of a committee?

A Clearness Committee is a discernment process our Quaker siblings have developed, which Parker Palmer (himself a Quaker) traces back to the 1660’s. One person brings a concern, question, or issue they are wrestling with into a group setting. A committee of support gathers to listen. On the Center for Courage and Renewal’s website they describe the experience as one which “helps us hear our own inner wisdom while drawing on the wisdom of other people. The Clearness Committee can help you to learn the value of asking open, honest questions, to experience how everyone has an inner teacher, and to see what happens when we commit to the ideas of no fixing, advising, saving or correcting one another.”[1] The listeners can only ask questions.

In my understanding, a Clearness Committee is a wonderful way for us to make space to listen to God. One of my continuing education experiences for 2021 has been participating in the Center for Courage and Renewal’s year-and-a-half long Flourishing in Ministry program in which we develop our pastoral leadership skills from “the heart of who”[2] we are. Many of you know Winton Boyd, who was pastor of Orchard Ridge UCC, and who is one of our mentors. This fellowship includes lots of opportunities for listening, holding sacred space for each other, and asking open, honest questions. In a week (May 10-12) I will be taking part in several Clearness Committee triads during our 3-day online retreat.

As I did my homework in preparation for the Clearness Committees and then read through the passage in Acts, upon hearing Luke write that 2,000 years ago “The whole assembly kept silence and listened…” I was drawn to the sacredness and power of that moment. Leaders of the early church, in Jerusalem, giving space for each other to talk. And LISTENING. Now… Peter and James providing their opinion of what God was up to does not fit into a Clearness Committee format per se, but the discernment process—purposefully pausing and listening—and the Holy Insight which emerges was obviously significant even in the early church.

In the rush of our digital, consumer culture how do we make time for that same space, that pausing, that time of prayer? And just how transformational can the Holy Spirit be in those moments? Through our own discernment as a faith community? As the Body of Christ?

I am hopeful, really… really hopeful… this pandemic year has offered us just such a space to listen.

With high school graduation approaching, I want to acknowledge that the pandemic has been particularly difficult for many of the teens and pre-teens in our congregation. Typically, I gift each graduating senior with Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. While both the Clearness Committees and this book focus more on the discernment… the listening… of an individual to God’s voice in their lives—I believe that congregations are called to listen for whom God is nudging them (thus US) to be as well.

Palmer highlights that as individuals, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”[3]

The place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

Palmer goes on, encouraging us “to learn more about the ecosystem in which (we are) planted—the network of communal relations in which (we are) called to live responsively, accountably, and joyfully with being of every sort. Only when (we) know both… self and community, can (we) embody the great commandment to love both… neighbor and myself.”[4]  

In the quiet of our online sanctuary… muted on Zoom and with typed comments on FaceBook… I have just such a testimony to share with you. Our ecosystem is different than Paul’s experience with the Council in Jerusalem, but also has elements similar to Paul’s. Collectively we are the gathered Body of Christ, listening anew to “what is necessary” in 2021.

So listen again in the silence. Can you hear the signs and wonders God is doing?

Pastor Kris played a video Kaitlin Young, a member of the congregation, which provides an overview of Memorial’s collaboration with the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness… and how it all began:

“I took my son to a Black Lives Matter march in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, in June of 2020. We walked. We saw the murals. We listened to chants. We talked about injustice. I am white. So is my son. We’re well off and have all the privileges of our skin color, our health, our finances, our family history. We are allies.

But what does that mean?

Just showing up at a rally, changing a FaceBook profile picture to an ‘I can’t breathe logo’? Yes, all of these and more.

Vanessa McDowell, the CEO of the YWCA of Madison, spoke to the crowd in masks that day gathered on the Capitol lawn and asked us, us white allies, to put our money where our FaceBook profile is. “The Black community in Wisconsin is strong and has a plan. Help us reach our goals,” she said, “Fund us.”

That cry for help inspired us to gather a group from our church, Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, who wanted to do something. We met (virtually of course) and found an organization that we wanted to support, the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness.

Founded by Lisa Peyton-Caire, their group in Dane County who [sic] provide health resources and education to women of color. We set up a goal to raise $10,000 each year for the next 5 years during Epiphany in honor of the gifts the magi brought to Jesus. An underdog, who also needed some powerful allies.

In an outpouring of generosity, we raised over $17,000 dollars for our first year and have inspired two other congregations we collaborate with to join in our efforts. We invite you to reach out in tangible ways to be allies in your community.”

Many thanks to Kaitlin and Peter Young for creating the video.

I would also like to let you know that Memorial has received a check for over $2,000 from Arbor Covenant Church in support of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness. 

All of this listening happened here… in this congregation… during a time in which we were struggling to survive during a pandemic and as political tensions divided our families and our communities. Just as our Bible reading opened with Paul and Barnabas who “had no small dissension and debate” with others in their own community—an opportunity opened up for a whole assemble to keep silence. To provide a sacred space in which God’s signs and wonders could be heard through a new lens.

Both the story in Acts today, and our own listening to the Spirit are wonderful examples of how God does not work on human terms, or on our human timeline. Even during calamities during which it is so easy to get caught up in our own human suffering, God gives us glimpses of how the world can be.

How we can help to rebuild hope and justice out of ruin.

How we can be a part of God’s restoration of heaven on earth.

This is that “thing”… the hoped for revelation of heaven on earth…

God has been making known in the world for a long… long time.

May we too continue to listen and follow that generous Spirit.

~ Pastor Kris

Reflection on Acts 15:1-18 offered May 2, 2021

[1] “The Clearness Committee • Center for Courage & Renewal,” Center for Courage & Renewal, accessed May 1, 2021, http://www.couragerenewal.org/clearnesscommittee/.

[2] “Flourishing in Ministry • Center for Courage & Renewal,” Center for Courage & Renewal, accessed May 1, 2021, http://www.couragerenewal.org/flourishing-in-ministry/.

[3] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 16.

[4] Ibid. 17