Fleeing for Tarshish
November 16, 2003
Rev. Douglas Taylor

For years I had no idea what people were talking about when they mentioned GPS. About a year ago I had an opportunity to play with my father-in-law’s GPS, or Global Positioning System. These are fun little gadgets that tell you exactly where you are within 20 or 30 feet using latitude and longitude and then some of the more sophisticated ones will translate that to street names. These things are turning up in cars and in the belt pouches of high-tech hikers. What now fascinates me most is how these things work. I guessing there are several of you out there who could offer a course on how these work, but for those of you who don’t know, let me describe it briefly. There is a system of about two dozen satellites that were put into orbit spanning the whole planet for the purpose of airplane navigation. A Global Positioning System has a receiver in it which calculates your distance from three or four of these satellites. From that information, this little device can tell you where you are geographically.

Well, I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be great if we had metaphysical versions of this device. What if we could create a little electronic toy that could tell you where you are spiritually. A Spiritual GPS: it would have great marketing value, especially around the holiday season, especially among family members! It seems to me a significant number of people find themselves in tight spots because they’ve made poor choices along the way. I think a spiritual GPS, or an SPS, Spiritual Positioning System, could help a lot of people with the art of making choices.

This, in a nutshell is what my sermon is all about: The art of making choices. We are occasionally caught between two or more equally attractive choices, and we are torn as to which course to pursue. Should I stay in my current job or jump for the more exciting though riskier job? Should I work to rebuild a broken relationship or pick up the pieces and move on? Which path shall I follow as my road diverges in this yellow wood? I read somewhere that “good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment.”

And this is what made me think of Jonah. Because often our choices are not made in a vacuum. We have clues as to which way to turn. In the yellow wood, Robert Frost looked down each road and noticed one “was grassy and wanted wear.” and so based his decision on that information. But how do we judge the information that we may then come to our decision? Jonah had a very clear indication as to which way to travel, and he picked the opposite direction. According to countless study guides, Tarshish was the farthest seaport to the west, all the way on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in Spain. Nineveh was over to the east. The story of Jonah the way many people read it, is really a satire because he sets out to refuse God by failing to prophesy. He tries to run away and, if you read on or if you recall the story, he turns out instead to be wildly successful. The town of Nineveh repents because of his preaching, something that almost never happens in Hebrew Scripture. Prophets are always being scorned and ridiculed and ignored. But for Jonah the whole city, all its inhabitants right down to the cattle, repent from wickedness by putting on sack-cloths and sitting in ashes. That’s right: even the cattle – in sack-cloths, sitting in ashes. Here is a prophet who really did not want to even show up, and at his mere word, the whole town repents and is saved. It’s quite a clever story really.

But what caught me, was how Jonah is given a very clear signal as to what to do with his life and he takes off in the opposite direction. Now we don’t get much God speaking to individuals these days and the conservative Christians have varying answers to that point. The way I see it, the voice of God can come through the mouth of any number of people who at one time or another offer a word of good counsel or a thoughtful nudge of encouragement. How often do we have a problem, though, to which the solution is so clear and yet we somehow end up doing decidedly unhelpful things instead! I remember a quote: “Advice is what you seek when you already know the answer but wish you didn’t.” (Erica Jong) I suspect the reason why the story of Jonah is so powerful is because it is a story so many of us can relate to when you really think about it. Have you ever felt like you are stuck in the gut of a big fish?

Sometimes you’re there because you made a poor choice and the consequences are hard to bear. Sometimes you find yourself stuck there even though you knew what to do (or not do), but you did the opposite and now you have that sinking feeling in your stomach that could have done that better. Until you go about and set things right, you’re stuck down in the belly of the whale. Wouldn’t it be easier if we knew how to avoid getting stuck in this position?
What gets in the way of making good choices? It could be that it is just easier to follow a knee-jerk pattern that we learned when we were young. It could be we are hopelessly (or seemingly thus) drawn to unhealthy situations. It could be we are in the habit of suppressing our deepest longings in favor of what we think we are supposed to want out of life. It could be we just aren’t thinking things through. It could be a values conflict. Whatever the reasons, we sometimes find ourselves longing for better decision-making skills; or at least a better understanding of how we do it when we find we have done it well.

Sometimes that is the only clue we can be certain of as to whether or not we have chosen well. When we can look back and say, things have worked out for the best and that was a good choice on my part. The phrase from Christian scripture “By their fruits ye shall know them,” was originally intended to be about good people and the good deeds they do. In our case this morning it can also be applied to our good choices and the good outcomes resulting. Which is great, but again, what do you do before you see the fruits of your decision to get some assurance that you are choosing well.

Well, a book I was reading recently picks up that very questions. In Pierre Wolff”s book, Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well he writes.

Can we avoid waiting until harvest, because by then it may be too late? Is it possible to have a systematic method of choosing what will guarantee good fruit? It is impossible beforehand to assure with absolute accuracy that what we are going to plant today will result in our own well-being and the well-being of others. If we retain the image of fruit, we cannot forecast perfectly what tomorrow’s weather will bring or the effect it will have on our seedlings. Will there be tornadoes or a gentle rain, drought or perfect sunshine? Who can predict? However, if a farmer methodically takes good care of the soil, prunes the fruit at the right time, uses the proper fertilizers and insecticides, and takes precautions against frost, good fruit may usually be anticipated. So also, a method of decision making reduces the hazards of being mistaken and puts the odds in our favor. … [And then a little further down the same page it says this,] All ripe fruit, when it is finally harvested and delivered, has undergone a maturation often accomplished by methodical labor. (Pp 13-4)

Wolff’s contention is that, when done well, the decision making method he outlines in his book will lead to a sense of harmony within oneself in relation to whatever the decision is about. Of course, as he indicates in the above passage, you can make the right choice and still be hit by drought or tornadoes over which cannot control. But there again, how you respond to the outside events in your life is still your choice, as Robbie Walsh said in our meditation. I think one of the key pieces to this is owning your part in the process. You need to know what you can control and be responsible for that.

This amazing decision making method articulated in this book by Wolff is called “Discernment.” Discernment is like a spiritual GPS. Discernment is the word used when there is a spiritual element to the decision making process. And it does not take too big a stretch to see a spiritual element to every major decision, especially when you define spiritual the way we do around here. What are the necessary elements to discernment? What are the key components for our Spiritual Positioning System? Really there are just a few critical components.

Time is a basic component, perhaps the basic component because when we don’t take our time with our choices, we usually end up reacting rather than responding. Responding means you choose to behave in a particular way to the events around you; where as reacting is more like a learned reflex that may or may not be helpful or even what you really want to do. You need to allow time for the discernment to work. Now, like anything you practice at, you can develop your discernment skills to the point that choosing well is like a reflex or a positive reaction in those situations when you don’t have much time to respond. But what you really want, if at all possible is to take time to fully consider the two roads that diverge before you.

But time is not all you need. What you do with that time is critical. The next component will seem obvious, I think for two reasons. Your head needs to be a part of the discernment process. The two reasons I think this sounds obvious to all of you is first, because we are Unitarian Universalists and the idea that the brain should be engaged in nearly every activity is just a given. And second, because when most of us take time to consider a decision, we do just that: we consider it, we think it through. This is the point in discernment where you would write out a list of pros and cons. This is the point at which you would uncover the possible outcomes. The word “discern” has a Latin origin; Dis: apart, and Cernere, to sift. And so: to separate by sifting. We consider the various options and sift through them. Now, a perfectly objective analysis of any given situation or dilemma is not humanly possible, so don’t try. We are not machines able to be completely objective and emotionless. Just because a person can reach a sensible decision based solely on intellectual analysis does not mean that said sensible decision is the best decision for all people in all situation; or even if it were, that any person would actually want to follow that choice!

It may sound odd to talk about not wanting to pick the choice that seems to be the obvious answer after we’ve thought it through, but consider this example: Think about the process of selecting a mate. If you find a person who is roughly your age and is in good health; who shares similar interests, values, and even cultural heritage with you; yet you do not love this person! Your brain weighs things and turns up yes, yes, yes to this choice of life partner. Yet the heart says no, and that is the end of that. Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason knows not.”

Discernment is not simply a process of figuring out what is sensible. It also includes the element of what you want. I mentioned early that when Robert Frost looked down each road in his yellow wood and noticed that one road was worn by many travelers and the other was not so; and thus based his decision on this information. But how did he weigh the information he got by looking down each road? Was he stirred by a sense of longing or adventure? Maybe he doesn’t really like being around other people and the thought of all those other travelers on the more common road just ‘turned him off,’ you might say. Does one solution seem to resonate while another seems to stifle? Emotions come a various levels. Listening to your heart is certainly done at a level of depth.

So far I have told you that what you need for Discernment, what pieces go into our SPS, Spiritual Positioning System, are a balance of mind and heart, and of course time. Is that enough? Is it enough that your decision makes sense and feels good? Maybe if your trying to decide which shirt to buy or which movie you should rent. Certainly the little decisions in your life don’t need so much attention. But is what I have outlined so far enough for the big stuff? There is still one element missing. I now speak of values, for it is the inclusion of values that sets this decision making process apart as distinctly spiritual. It is our values that lead us to make hard choices that may not seem the most sensible or feel good.

Values are the key element to a sound decision making process. I have a bookmark with a pithy quote I like: “Set your course by the light of the stars,” it says, “not by the lights of every passing ship.” This image of navigating a ship is a fine analogy for choosing well. Our values are like the stars which guide our course. We often feel like we are in uncharted waters and those old maps that have places marked “here there be dragons” seem to fit with what it’s like to try to work through significant dilemmas. Shall I invest more of my free time helping out at the nearby soup kitchen or at my church, or shall I spend it with my family? Shall I carry this child to term and give it up for adoption or shall I terminate this pregnancy now? If I get into the university I really want, which course of study shall I pursue? I’m worried that my teenage son might be skipping school and doing drugs, how shall I respond? When is it time for me to stop driving because of my age? Indeed here there be dragons for here we touch on deep things. What we think is best and what we want or desire may hit up against our strongest values. Our values can serve as the stars by which we navigate. “Set your course by the light of the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”

When Jonah is down in the belly of that great fish he does some serious discerning and lets out this long prayer about how awful life can be but he gives thanks all the same to God who is about to command the fish to release him. And he pulls out his Spiritual Positioning System, and discovers that the whale must have traveled a bit in those three days and three nights, because he is no longer anywhere near self-righteousness and presumptuousness and he is now moving pretty close to humility and compassion. One of the lines in the prayer is: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8) Those things which you value, Those things which you cling to, those things that deep down define you because those are the things you hold as your guiding stars; those things should be worthy of such honor. One of the lessons Jonah’s story can offer us is to be careful what values we use to guide our choices. But also that it is never too late to change course.

You could find yourself in unfamiliar territory and pull out you SPS, Spiritual Positioning System, and based on your distance from the values of honesty, personal integrity, and financial security you should probably steer clear of that job offer from the corporate auditing firm and stick with your job as bookkeeper for a non-profit organization. What are the nearest satellites to you, what are the values you use when plotting your course? Perhaps three of them are enough to triangulate yourself in a faithful discernment process. Hold fast to the clearest thoughts of your mind, the deepest longings of your heart and the guiding twinkle of your highest values. And take your time.

In a world without end, may it be so.