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A Thousand Noes for Every Yes

Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, preaching
River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 4, 2013



The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

        From The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz (WW Norton, 2000).
        (on Poets.org)





    It's a delight to be with you here today. As some of you know, I'm not preaching much since I have retired. I have my projects, but have cut back significantly on preaching.

    But I couldn't resist this opportunity--I do love this congregation. I have spent time with your Board, and of course enjoyed being here for Reverend Nancy McDonald Ladd's Installation. This time it was an easy deal to cut--come to Bethesda and preach, and see the new Ladd Grandchild which we were pretty sure would be born before this Sunday. So I stand before you, a little giddy, having spent the weekend with Jon, Nancy, Ruth and Josiah "Jed" McDonald Ladd, our newest Grandchild and I think your newest "church baby."



    "A Thousand Nos for Every Yes". In June I was thinking about this sermon and what I would say today. As I tend to do when I am thinking about a sermon, I was in the "sponge" mode, looking for something 'that would preach' as they say.

    I was in that mode when I listened to a live-streamed video of a keynote address given by Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, to the World Wide Developer's Conference. Just to put it into some sort of context, there were representatives from 60 countries in attendance at a conference that had sold out in 71 seconds. It was live-streamed all over the world to additional people who were writing code, creating apps, and in general were eager to be taught by Apple how to be effective creators of web-based products.

    Before Tim Cook spoke, he showed a pre-roll video that was brilliant. If you do a search for "A Thousand Nos For Every Yes" you will find it. It is visually captivating, and in its simple presentation, makes an elegant point.

    "If everyone is busy making everything
        how can anyone perfect anything?
    We start to confuse convenience with joy
        abundance with choice.
    Designing something requires focus.
    The First thing we ask is
        "What do we want people to feel?"
            delight, love, surprise, connection
    Then we begin to craft around our intention.
    It takes time.
    There are a thousand nos for every yes.
        We simplify/ We perfect/ We start over
    Until everything we touch enhances each life it touches.
    Only then do we sign our work.
    "Apple of California."

Now I'm not here today to endorse Apple. That's too complicated a subject for our time together, and I'm not qualified to do it anyway.

But their little message before the World Wide Developer's Conference in June is a place to start. A Thousand nos for every yes.

    Because the capacity to experience an authentic "yes" in life, grows out of our capacity to say "no". It's true in our parenting. It's true in our choice of spouse...or job...or house, or to what end we will use our courage, as my coleague Burton Carley says. "To what end will we use our courage?" All these questions require authentic "nos" so that we can say an authentic "yes."

    Only we're not designing products or apps., cellphones or iPads.

    We're discerning the tone, color, spirit, effectiveness, wisdom, the uses of our time and energy. We're not signing products--we're signing the time of our lives, every day and every moment with our given names.

    There are many ways to talk about the "yes" and "no" of life. Sometimes the "no" comes from circumstances, the external factors that shape us. Students of history tell us how whole generations are affected by the particular times in which they came of age. The world they found themselves in had special demands which in turn shaped them. The importance of security for the Depression Era generation; the importance of autonomy for the generation which came of age in the '60s; the importance of achievement for women who entered the work force in the 70s and 80s would only be a few examples--the society shapes us in so many ways, often unseen and unexpected--especially when we're young. The 'yes' and 'no' of life having a power often beyond our ability to control or manage.

    And of course we're learning more and more about the effects of privilege and constraint in our society; each of us representing privilege in certain areas of life, and constraint in others. These are "yesses" and "nos" of life that are important for us to become sensitized to, in ourselves and in others as we work for justice and peace .

    There are the "nos" that come with life. The man I loved when I was young married someone else. That was a big "no". I got a job out of college, and moved to a state where I hoped to shape an independent adult life. Big "yesses". Started working, "Mostly yes." Bad marriage, wonderful baby boy. Big No, Big yes--all at once.

    Theological School, "yes," with the hopes and dreams of generation of women pushing me along. Didn't get the church I had my heart set on. Got a different and in many ways better one for me. (Another no. Big yes.) Two wonderful ministries. Huge yesses. Lost the election to become President of the UUA. Huge no. Retired and married. Two big yesses.

    And so it goes. We have hopes and dreams, capacities and interests and they mix together often in startling ways to shape our lives as we make the choices we do.

    In the world of spiritual traditions, the word for making those decisions is "discernment." We know what it means to be a discerning person. It is the capacity to nuance our choices. To bring all that we are and have and know to the moment, to the way we live our lives. To be wise and knowledgeable and intuitive in our experiences, like sipping a fine wine. It is finding what Stanley Kunitz found-- that "some principle of being abides, from which (he struggles) not to stray." Some principle of being abides in each of us, and the struggle is not to stray.

    Over the centuries, certain spiritual practices have developed to help us practice discernment in our lives. Practices of boldness and humility, courage and caution, knowledge and wisdom, patience and decisive action. All at once!

    Because getting to "yes" is not easy. And sometimes the most obvious "yes" is not the one we need. Sometimes the "yes" is hasty, sometimes the "no" comes from fear, and coming to either can be fraught with doubt.

    So what can help?

    First, (and I agree with Apple's CEO Tom Cook on this one:) It takes time.

It takes what the poet Rilke called, "Living in the Questions". It's important to take the time to ask yourself what question you are living. And then ask it over and over again. It's a simple thing. What question are you living? But it is a profound practice. The question may change. Your answers may change. But in time--and this has been true for me--in time, (usually much longer than we want. Much, much longer than we want-)-the answer emerges. As will more questions to live.

    Second, true discernment comes in the context of our commitments. That is to say, we don't ever make these life decisions in isolation. This congregation is a wonderful place to bring your life and the questions you are living. The best of our small groups do this. Friendships do this. Families do this.

    If you don't have relationships that serve this function in your life, the question for you today is how can you find one. Ask that question until you figure it out.

    Third, some people have a Spiritual Director. I have one. Have for years. I will say when the big "nos" of life come along, a Spiritual Director is a big help. This is not a person who tells you to straighten up and fly right--that is a stereotype of a spiritual director long gone, in most quarters. This is a person who listens, who reminds, who reflects back, who asks question for reflection...and once in awhile, even gives advice. Mine has fostered a resiliency in me that I don't think I could have had without our monthly chats and prayer. I know prayer isn't for everybody, but for me it has helped in the shaping of my unanswered questions, articulating my deep yearning, fostering my spoken gratitude, and allows me to move in a world where there aren't clear answers. It's been an important practice as I have faced big unknowns in my life.

    Fourth, --Keep a journal. The main purpose for me is to keep track of what I know. I discover often that I know something long before I think I know it. Does that make sense? I often write things in my journal that I'm not even conscious I know. When I go back and reread what I've written over the previous couple of months, for example, I am often surprised. It gives me more confidence in the flow of my life and thought. It helps me act with strength when the time comes to do something I have been considering. When the time of discernment is accomplished.

    I am now in a place in my life where I am often looking back at what I did with my life, trying to make sense of it all. It occurred to me recently as I thought about discernment, that what I am doing now is "retrospective discernment." Using all the practices that have shaped my life decisions as I moved forward, only now in retrospect. Sorting out the meaning of my days and years as I have lived them.

    This is where the words I read earlier of Stanley Kunitz have helped:

"Live in the layers" he says "not on the litter". At first I tought those words were odd in this lovely poem about time. This wonderful poem about finding an abiding principle of existence.

    But after living with this poem for a time I came to appreciate the words more and more. I began to even use them as a trigger, when I found myself ruminating over mistakes I have made, and over relationships gone awry--"live in the layers, not on the litter" I found myself saying to my inner ruminations. "Live in the layers, not on the litter." And I could feel myself shift to a deeper sense of what my life has been over a longer arc of time.

    When I live in the layers, I see my life in context. When I live in the layers I am better able to forgive myself and know myself as forgiven, no matter what my daily circumstances. When I live in the layers, perhaps especially when I am 'discerning retrospectively' I can be renewed.

    Kunitz says, "Though I lack the art to decipher it". Me too. I don't know what it actually means either. But I know he's on to something important. He says it himself:

    "Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes."

    Now personally, I don't think our lives are planned ahead of our living them. I'm not sure what Kunitz thought about a grand plan. But I know in my own experience, that I may have already written in my own journal, what I will soon discover are transformative thoughts and realizations. For the future does grow out of what we already know in amazing ways.

    So discernment is taking in to account the ways life's limitations can be a "no" Acknowledging that history is still in the making, and the limits of freedom and justice are another "no" which we can continue to work to change. People, institutions, groups say "no", sometimes because they can't see what we see. Sometimes because they too are limited. Sometimes because their "no" contains a deeper "yes" for us as we seek our purpose. This too is discernment.

    Then there are the yesses and noes that are part of the small sliver of life that is actually discretionary--the parts of our lives where we make decisions, consciously, where we do set our own course and hold our breath because we don't know how it will come out.

    The best we can do is "craft around our intention", as the video for the World Wide Designers Conference suggests. Craft our lives around our intention. Become truly discerning people, not only about design, good wine or good food, or in our regard for the lives of children and friends...but in the depth of our human experience of life in our time. Spending our courage where it matters. All of our days.



May our steps be fixed that we stagger not
at the uneven motions of the world,
but go steadily on our way.
Neither censuring our journey for the weather we meet,
nor turning aside for anything that may befall us.
Go in peace.