Finding Clarity in the Chaos

Preacher: Kent French
Date: March 22, 2020

(No audio is available but you can watch the whole service on our YouTube page here.)

Scripture: Acts 17:22-30


It is good to be with all of you again.

This is without a doubt a historic time.

One of those national and global milestones that become etched

in the collective psyche of humanity.

Events like: 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall,

a human walking on the moon, the Cuban missile crisis, World War 2.

The last week has been a turning point for many of us.

It has rattled us thoroughly:

rattled us out of our usual routines,

out of our well-thought-out plans,

out of our well-developed sense of whatever normal is supposed to be,

out of a sense of security.

Many of us have suddenly had a to adapt to technology

-- FaceTiming and getting our Zoom on…

I thank all of those who joined us on Wednesday for our Lenten study on Zoom

and again for Thursday for our Dinner Church.

which was a little clunky, but I have to say, really good to see all of your faces.

I am especially grateful to the members of our staff in their 20s & 30s.

Susan and I have asked them to take the lead

in preparing, editing and helping us put together these online services.

In one of our meetings this week, Amy, Jaz and Josaphat were going back and forth about all the

different ways they could use our technology to make this worship possible:

this, that, here, there.

At one point they asked if Susan and I were following and I recall that Susan said what I was feeling

at the time:

I feel kind of like a dog watching TV

I’m getting some of it, but the rest is, well, kind of escaping me.


So we’re all learning together.

And I am grateful for those with more facility and knowledge to lead us in these new formats.

I know that there are those of you listening who are now adapting to working at home all week,

those who are adapting to having the kids “working” at home with you all week

– and neither demand, job nor kids, is letting up at all–

those who may have lost a job or see it coming,

those who are alone who may feel lonelier,

those whose lives have already been affected directly by the COVID-19 virus,

either learning that you’ve been around someone who has it,

you’ve needed to be tested, or you are wondering about symptoms you’re having:

are they an allergy? a cold? the flu? my imagination?

And I think especially of all of you working in healthcare

who are bracing yourself for the surge that is sure to come,

wondering how effective these precautions are going to be,

knowing we could have started earlier with them,

working every day in situations that are growing more and more tense.

Our hearts and love and support go out to you.

We are here for you when you need strength and comfort.

And I know many of us are already EXHAUSTED by all of this.

You are not alone.

Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

(Matthew 11:28)

So, here we come to rest for a moment, in this online platform,

to let our hearts and lungs beat in the heart and presence of God for a moment.

No matter what we do, it’s essential work, this stopping and remembering God in our hearts.

This is a time when I feel most grateful for places such as the church,

places that help us remember our deepest values,

places that bind us together in community, not by what divides us, but by what unifies us,

namely, that we are all beloved members of the family of humanity,

we are all of us beloved children of God, offspring of the creative life-force of the universe.

For all of you, I say: we will continue to be here for one another.

This is a time when we get to model what is best about our community and our shared humanity.

We are here for one another – for whatever spiritual comfort and strength we need.

We will to be here for one another, through whatever losses, setbacks, and frustrations befall us.

We will be one of the thousands of beacons of light around the world, offering the warmth of love

and community, and in our own way, the peace of Christ and the love of God.

I am grateful for those in our community who are already asking,

how can we help those who will be hardest hit by the economy, by the medical challenges?


How can we make a difference?

As you’ll hear in a moment from our parish Moderator,

we are actively asking those questions and developing strategies.

I know that as each week unfolds and we move into the peak and aftermath of how this pandemic is

affecting us locally, we will be able to respond with more specificity and helpfulness.

For now – this moment, at least – I invite us to lean into our Lenten theme,

Discernment: Finding Clarity in the Chaos.

Discernment is at the heart of United Parish’s vision for how we do ministry, how we do church.

That’s why we have a “Discernment & Engagement Team” at the heart of our structure.

Their job is to help us discern how God calls us to serve – both inside our community and in the

wider world.

And when the team chose this theme several weeks ago,

we obviously had no idea how its meaning would intensify for us –

just how much more chaos we would feel than we already did two months ago.

As Amy tipped us off this week,

it was also not on our minds that the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian for the number 40,

which was how many days the Venetian authorities required ships to stay in dock if they were

suspected to have the plague.

The same number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness,

the same number of days we observe Lent.

So there is some eerie historic parallel to this season of “quarantina.”

Let us turn for a moment to the story Jaz just read from the Acts of the Apostles.

If you want to review it at home: Acts 17:22-30

The apostle Paul is visiting Athens, the cultural, educational heart

of his larger world, namely the Roman Empire all around the Mediterranean.

He is valiantly trying to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

He is getting into arguments (or discussions) with the learned Athenians, talking with them about

Epicureanism, Stoicism, and no doubt Plato and Aristotle.

They look at him as some kind of odd, noisy, little, loud-mouthed Jew from a godforsaken,

left-behind, dusty old corner of the Roman Empire.

Clearly not as learned or cultured as your average Athenian. An oddball really.

It would be like a noisy, little Bible-thumping, hunched-over Southern-drawling preacher from

Appalachia coming into the hallowed halls of one of our universities here in Boston

and trying to talk philosophy or political theory or biochemistry with PhD candidates and professors.

What can he possibly know?

As the Athenians put it a few verses earlier, “What does this babbler want to say?”

But Paul is one of those tenacious people who is never put off.

He is feisty, persistent, undeterred in his quest to spread the Gospel.


Most of our New Testament, after all, comes from Paul.

As I often say, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for Paul.

And he is just intriguing enough, just odd enough,

just forceful enough that they pay attention to him.

They take him to the Areopagus – which means the hill of Ares, the god of war.

We have another church here in Brookline, which bears its Roman name: Mars Hill.

It was also the name for the chief judicial council – the place where Socrates was tried.

So, are they taking him for arraignment? Or for a friendly discussion?

or to make fool out of him?

Probably some combo of all of that – but certainly to expose him more publicly as the fool they take

him to be.

Paul doesn’t care. As he’s written elsewhere in his letters, he’s happy to be a fool for Christ.

He thinks that what seems foolish to the world and learned people like the Athenians is actually a

kind of wisdom, God’s kind of wisdom:

to love the things God loves

to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27)

to look out for the widows and orphans, (James 1:27 and many other places)

and to take care of the neediest among you (Matthew 25:40)

to love justice -- do kindness -- walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)

He’s not afraid to be seen as fool. He’ll go to prison for being foolish.

Like Jesus, he’ll even be killed for it. (1 Corinthians 1:25, 3:19, 4:9-16)

And yet this noisy little oddball pulls off an artful rhetorical turn.

He gets right up there in front of Ares Hill and he takes on the moment:

“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way…”

“I have looked carefully at the objects of your worship…”

He speaks admiringly of all the statues to their gods that he sees all over the city

and then he says, but there was one statue that really caught my attention,

it said, “to an unknown God.”

Well folks, I have come to talk with you about that unknown God…

Very clever, Paul. Reels them right in.

Then he goes on to describe this god, our God, by the way

as not contained in shrines or statue or in the works of human hands

This God is the source of our life and breath

our common parent in the family of humanity.

And he says that our quest on this Earth is:

“to search for God, perhaps grope for and find God

though indeed God is not far from each one of us.”

And then, with another stroke of rhetorical jujitsu, he quotes one of their own Greek philosophers.

It’s a little unclear which one, probably Epimenides or the Stoic Posidonius – this will be on the test

at the end of this webcast, so you may want to write those names down –


he quotes them and says for “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Meaning, God is everywhere in life around us.

And you and I are meant to search for God, every day,

even grope for God and find God. But God is super-close all the time.

In our work, in our families, in our play, even in the existential foundation-shaking mess of a global

pandemic. We are to look for God – the constant source of our life and being.

I happen to believe that is this source of our being that allows us

to muster enough ingenuity to get ahead of a virus,

that brings us together for better public health standards,

that helps us take care of one another, especially in hard times.

Sometimes it’s hard to find God.

As we talked about three weeks ago when we told the story of Elijah,

hiding for his life in a cave somewhere in the Judean desert –

it can be hard to hear the “still, small voice of God,” yearning to speak inside each one of us.

The world is a noisy place.

The inside of our heads are noisy places – full of competing voices and yearnings.

That’s why some of us turn to things like insight meditation, to try to quiet it down.

If you’ve ever tried it, it’s hard. The monkey just keeps swinging around in there in a completely

ADHD kind of way, pointing out every little passing thought, notion, plan, fear, neurosis, lalalala.

Others of us try to tune it out by turning to drugs or alcohol or other addictions, to try to tune it out.

But that usually doesn’t work for very long…before it takes us into deeper trouble.

And so, to combat this noisiness, both inner and outer noisiness,

I want to introduce you to a discernment strategy, a technique

– introduced by the Quakers (the Society of Friends), called a “clearness committee.”

It sounds very 60’s culture, I know, very peace-and-love, kind of groovy.

It is actually from the 60’s, the 1660’s – it’s a 360-year-old spiritual technique.

I’m only going to be able to say enough today to whet your appetite, but if it catches your interest we

have more resources attached to this order of worship and the “Opportunities in Lent” section of our

website. You can join an online discussion about it this afternoon or later this week.

To do a Clearness Committee, you’re going to need to select some spiritual buddies to help you.

You can still try it over FaceTime, Skype or WhatsApp.

Those of you who are prayer partners, this is a great exercise for you to think about.

Quakers, as you may know, believe very fiercely in the power of the Spirit to speak through each one

of us. They do not have clergy, so they have developed ways to allow the Spirit, the Divine, to tap into

our inner resources for change, growth and discernment.


And this technique, the Clearness Committee, is designed to have some spiritual Friends help you

find the inner voice of God, especially when you are trying to figure out the answer to a hard


• perhaps you’re on the verge of making a life-changing decision – like a job, a relationship, a big

move, or having a child,

• perhaps you’re trying to find a way to balance all of the challenges in your life, to gain some clarity,

• perhaps you’re just trying to find the way forward.

The educator and activist Parker Palmer has written extensively about this practice and it is a regularly

part of the curriculum at his Center for Courage and Renewal. (

The way it works, is that you select some people, at least two, whom you trust as spiritual

companions. They will comprise the members of your committee.

You find a time to gather with them. You may want to light a candle, ring a bell.

It’s always good to start with some prayer.

And then you, as the focus of the Clearness Committee, state what is the issue, problem, question,

challenge, you are trying to discern.

And your “committee members” listen. They just listen.

And then they are allowed to ask questions.

As Parker Palmer puts it:

but everything they say is governed by one rule,

a simple rule and yet one that most people find difficult and demanding:

members are forbidden to speak to the focus person in any way

except to ask honest, open questions.

This means absolutely no advice and no amateur psychoanalysis.

It means no, “Why don’t you…?”

It means no, “That happened to me one time, and here’s what I did…”

It means no, “There’s a book/therapist/exercise/diet that would help you a lot.”

Nothing is allowed except real questions, honest and open questions,

questions that will help the focus person remove the blocks

to his or her inner truth without becoming burdened

by the personal agendas of committee members.

I may think I know the answer to your problem, and on rare occasions I may be right.

But my answer is absolutely no value to you.

The only answer that counts is one that arises from your own inner truth.

The discipline of the Clearness Committee is to give you greater access to that truth

and allow you to have a personal dialogue with it—

while the rest of us refrain from trying to define that truth for you or guide that dialogue.


The process, when done with faithfulness and appropriate discipline, leads to deeper questions, that

lead one to the inner truth of the person’s being.

They help clear the debris and detritus of our minds and the competing agendas in our heads.

But in order to know this, you will have to experience it.

One of our members, a retired educator, said she had an experience like the Clearness Committee,

when she was working through challenges in her work life. She wrote me:

Over and over again, when I began this kind of work, I would come up with a question I would

consider bringing to the group, and then I would find myself saying

“No, that’s a dumb question” or

“everyone but me knows the solution to that problem.”

It taught me the value of trusting the hive mind, trusting that I was respected,

trusting that my ideas AND struggles were valuable,

and that my colleagues truly had my back

in this precarious and challenging task to teaching.

She suggested that probably 70% of us listening to worship here today may be saying the same things

she used to say to herself:...I’m not interesting or worthy of this attention.

My friends, each of us within earshot is worthy of this kind of attention

We are a discerning congregation – which means that we are seeking, questioning, looking for

answers. This discipline, the Clearness Committee, can help us unleash the answers that are usually

lying, waiting inside us. We often just need some help from God and our spiritual companions to

unleash them.

So, I encourage you to try it out.

Check out the materials we are providing for you – especially if you have a thorny question you are

trying to resolve.

You may also want to look at this past week’s materials on our website, which help us

Above all, remember what Paul said to those learned and knowledgeable Athenians,

God is not far from us.

In fact, God is closer than we think, trying to make a home through our very being.

And this, will see us through

today, and the next and the next and the next.

In closing, I want to share this poem written by Brother Richard Hendrick, a Franciscan priest in





Yes there is fear.

Yes there is isolation.

Yes there is panic buying.

Yes there is sickness.

Yes there is even death.


They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise

You can hear the birds again.

They say that after just a few weeks of quiet

The sky is no longer thick with fumes

But blue and grey and clear.

They say that in the streets of Assisi

People are singing to each other

across the empty squares,

keeping their windows open

so that those who are alone

may hear the sounds of family around them.

They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland

Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

Today a young woman I know

is busy spreading fliers with her number

through the neighbourhood

So that the elders may have someone to call on.

Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples

are preparing to welcome

and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary

All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting

All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way

All over the world people are waking up to a new reality

To how big we really are.

To how little control we really have.

To what really matters.

To Love.

So we pray and we remember that

Yes there is fear.

But there does not have to be hate.

Yes there is isolation.

But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes there is panic buying.

But there does not have to be meanness.

Yes there is sickness.

But there does not have to be disease of the soul

Yes there is even death.

But there can always be a rebirth of love.


Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.

Today, breathe.

Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic

The birds are singing again

The sky is clearing,

Spring is coming,

And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul

And though you may not be able

to touch across the empty square,


Fr. Richard Hendrick, OFM

March 13th 2020



Discernment: Finding Clarity in the Chaos

Week 4: Discerning through a Clearness Committee 

Take-home questions


These are some questions and ideas for you to reflect further on today’s worship and to join us in our collective Lenten study of Discernment.


In today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles (17:22-30), Paul says that we are meant to:

    God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For “In God we live and move and have our being” (vv. 27-28)


Are there times when you feel like you’re groping (searching blindly and with uncertainty) to find God? When and what are those times like?

Is there a particular question, challenge, issue that you’re wrestling with right now and trying to find where God is in it?

Are there 2-3 friends whom you could imagine helping you with this decision, who could ask open, honest questions of you? Who?

Today we talked about the Quaker concept of a “Clearness Committee,” a small group designed to help you find the inner wisdom of God as it exists in you.

The following resources have more information about how to form

    a Clearness Committee:

The Center for Courage and Renewal:

The Friends General Conference (Quakers)


The distinguishing mark of a Clearness Committee is that they ask open, honest questions of you, in order to help you find the deeper wisdom of God residing in your soul.

They do not give advice, they do not seek to psychoanalyze, they do not share their own perspective, they merely ask you questions and help you come up with the answers.


If this is something that interests you, we invite you to check out 


Some suggested practices for the week ahead

These are some easy-to-try spiritual practices that can help you as you launch into a season of discernment. Feel free to pick and choose, experiment and see how they feel and then report back to us next week. You are welcome to join us in study groups after Sunday worship in Lent or other times. Check out the homepage link at the bottom of the page.


Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina (literally divine reading) is a way of becoming immersed in the Scriptures very personally. It draws on the way Jews read the Haggadah, a text read during Passover that retells the Exodus story. Haggadah means “telling” and along with being a physical text, the word captures the practice of telling and retelling a story to find deeper meaning.


The Christian form of Lectio Divina was first introduced by St. Gregory of Nyssa (c 330- 395), and also encouraged by St. Benedict of Nursia (c 480-547), the founder of the Benedictine order. It’s a way of developing a closer relationship with God by reflecting prayerfully on God’s word in scripture. In Lectio Divina, the chosen spiritual text is read four times in total, giving an opportunity to think deeply about it and respond thoughtfully. When we practice Lectio Divina, we sometimes can imagine we’re actually involved in the events of Scripture.


Here’s how to get started:


Light a candle and/or pray a prayer of invitation, saying something like, “God, let me/us hear from you,” and spend a few minutes sitting quietly so one’s mind is open to hearing from God.


Lectio (Read)

The first reading is an opportunity to get to know the Scripture passage. Listen carefully for any words or phrases that seem to jump out.   Write down or share those words if you are doing this with someone. No need for lots of explanation, just share what caught your attention. 


Meditatio (Reflect)

On the second reading of the same passage, listen for the deeper meaning God has infused in this scripture particularly for you in your life today.  How does it make you feel? If there’s no immediate response, ask God to be more present with you. 


Oratio (Respond)

After a third reading, what action could you take based on this message from God, that would keep up the conversation with God and deepen your connections to the Spirit.   


Contemplatio (Rest)

After the final reading, spend around 5 minutes in silent contemplation. This doesn’t need to be  a time of prayer or deep though — just sit quietly and allow God to work. When the mind starts to wander and dart here and there, bring it gently back to stillness again.



Spiritual Examen

A spiritual practice derived from St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish Basque Catholic priest and theologian, who gave up a life of nobility and  co-founded the religious order called the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the 16th century. The examen was developed in the 1500s as a core practice and is used to this day by Jesuits and other religious groups. 


Find a quiet, comfortable place to spend about 10 minutes at the end of each day this week:

  1. Give thanks for all God’s gifts and benefits

  2. Ask for light/God’s presence

  3. Review the day: thoughts, words, deeds, desires, consolations, desolations

  4. Express gratitude, sorrow or purpose of amendment

  5. Ask for the graces you desire for tomorrow

You can make it as long or short as you want. Try repeating the practice throughout the week.


Practicing Gratitude

Another practice is to name and write down three specific things each day for which you are thankful. It could be anything: time with a loved one, a delicious meal, an unexpected break in your day, a kind exchange with a stranger, something in nature.

The point is to make it specific, and spend some time in your mind reliving the experience, savoring the feelings and thoughts they brought up in you.

This is a core practice that neuroscientists suggest in helping change some of our brain patterns from our predetermined negative, anxious bias to a cultivated, more positive, hopeful outlook.


Prayer Partners 

We welcome EVERYONE at United Parish to try having a prayer partner in Lent. 

You may think that you are not that spiritual, or that you don’t know how to pray, or even if you do, you don’t want to share that with someone else, that it’s private. That’s OK. Just give it a try. 

It’s a holy experiment, basically committing to having a spiritual buddy in the congregation with whom you talk for 5-15 minutes each week from now through Easter (April 12).

You can sign up at


An online “data-driven” daily discernment practice

Methodist colleagues at the Harvard-Epworth Church in Cambridge have created a daily discernment opportunity, in which they email you a question each day to answer as part of your own private discernment practice. You can check it out and sign up at


Scripture for your week ahead

Ponder this verse from the Epistles (James 1:5)  If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

Take a few minutes to read and reread it during the week, paying attention to how it lands with you at different times and in different situations. Are you able to trust God to provide wisdom when you ask for it? How is God calling you to listen and be receptive to divine wisdom? 


Throughout your week, you may also want to re-read the verses from Psalm 66, that we chanted in worship today.


For more information, check out