Introductory Reflection by Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
In part 1 of this sermon I preached about some of the challenges that face us. Like, climate change. That’s a big one. Even if we ourselves do not feel it, other people do – people in power who are making decisions that impact us. And people in our day to day lives. We don’t always notice the ways in which pressures filter their way down, but I wonder sometimes if people are a little more on edge, making it harder to connect with each other, harder to keep our aspirational commitments to ourselves, or harder even to just figure out what those should be, given all that’s happening around us.
And while the tensions in our modern world may be pressing on us and making hard things harder, hard things are not new, of course. As I alluded to in part 1, the roots of our modern difficulties have been with us for a long time. This culture that divides us by lifting up individual success over common good. That keeps pointing us toward material things as the answer to our problems. That lifts up strident voices selling easy answers to complicated questions, all of which distracts and confuses us.
And is noise that tends to leave us cut off, as Rev Scott Taylor has put it, from each other, from the wisdom of our deepest self, and from the bounty of life’s natural gifts. In fact, many of us come to spiritual communities such as this one for the primary purpose of healing those connections. To find people who care about each other and the world, to carve out space and time to listen to our own voice, and to re-discover all the good this world has for us, that is too often hidden from our sight. Taylor calls them lifelines – these ways of reconnecting: to self, to others, and to the gifts of life that are available to all.
In part one I talked about re-aligning our expectations of ourselves and our faith to become counter to this culture of materialism. To step back a little from the incessant drive to do more and be more and, instead, prioritize connection. Not just with each other, but with ourselves. Slowing down so that, while we still take actions for our good and the good of others, those actions are less pressured, and more guided by some deeper wisdom than is available on cable news or twitter.
So that sounds good. Reconnecting where we’ve been cut off. Finding new meaning in our relationships with each other and ourselves. Enjoying life in new fresh ways. These are great things. The big question though remains: how? Though I would like to say there is a simple one size fits all formula but I don’t think there is. Part of the beauty of our journey is that we get to discover, and keep discovering, what heals us and moves us and connects us with life.
And, I have a bias. My life, personally, has been transformed in small groups. I don’t think I ever would have made some of the hardest but also most interesting choices in my life without the support of the small groups I’ve been part of. I believe small groups are a place where we can connect on a level that is regularly not possible, and with all kinds of people, even those quite different from us, opening us up to worlds that we otherwise would not have known.
Which is why I have put a focus on building a small group program here at Westminster. One that encourages listening to others, and listening to yourself. One that includes putting spiritual concepts into practice, through monthly spiritual exercises and questions, because we grow best when we live our faith, beyond just thinking or talking about it.
And so today’s service is, in part, a window into connection groups, and what may be possible, for you, there.
But as noted, we each find our own path, and today’s service also about more than small groups. It is fundamentally, about how we live our spiritual journey. And about how looking at our journey through the lens of those three lifelines – opening to self, to others, and to life’s gifts — how looking through those lenses might open up new insights ideas and inspiration for you on your spiritual path.
Today’s service is divided into three parts. One for each of those lifelines. And while the shares are about an experience of that lifeline within the group, the message of them also transcend the groups. Each share is a glimpse into how we humans deal with the all that stands in our way, all that distracts us, or pulls us away from what we most value, and how we head back to ourselves and each other, healing disconnection, and coming back home.
Reading: By John Fox
Opening to my Self ~ by Clare Karb
In all of our daily lives, we spend time listening and talking. Some of us talk a lot and share easily. Some listen really thoroughly and share just a little. In my life as a social worker turned full-time parent, much of my talking seems to be shouting commands (often into a void) and most of my listening requires me to act as some combination of advisor, counselor and trial judge. So, as I sat in my first connection group meeting, I was quite struck by the covenant that I made. To listen deeply and silently without reacting or solving or relating or delivering a verdict. I affirmed that I would reflect over the course of each month and come to group to share my insights, my struggles and my responses. All of this reflecting would take place in a room filled with only silence and stillness and the open ears and hearts of my fellow congregants- many of them strangers on the first night we met.
I had signed up for this- this experience of speaking and being heard and held without the usual responses (the laughter, the “I agree!” the, “no way!”) that I am used to.
And this was big. As a person who values (and sometimes longs for) social connection in every-day life, I had come to rely on those little affirmations. Speaking from my heart into a room full of people who were filled with warmth and openness but who were tasked with only listening was a huge shift.
And what did that shift do over a season’s worth of third Thursday-of the month meetings? It changed my entire course of thinking. Instead of searching for the words that would elicit laughter, or agreement or accolades, I began to search for words that were simply true.
I found words that weren’t fancy.
Words that wouldn’t fit perfectly on a greeting card.
Words that didn’t summarize the breadth of the human experience.
I guess I’d say that I speak every day (pretty much all day) in order to elicit a reaction- to argue persuasively, to convince or cajole or reprimand – even to entertain! In short, I speak all day every day for other people. And in this one quiet space I began to speak for myself. My own voice echoing toward my own ears in the safety of like-minded listeners who would each in turn have their own minutes of brilliant stillness and who would have me as their warm and receptive listener.
The most wonderful thing about learning to be present to myself within this precious community group is that the journey doesn’t ever have to end. Although my third-Thursday group concluded in the spring, and I look forward to participating in a group this fall. In the meantime, has been disbanded, the spirit of seeking and connection- the wonderment of an invitation to be present with myself as well as for others continues to resonate through every sermon, every choir song, every RE class, every cup of coffee… and it deepens my connection to Unitarian Universalism, to my (still new and yet already beloved) Westminster community and to my deepest self.
Opening to Others – Introduction
Being present to each other, widening our boundaries – begins here with this lifeline of listening or opening to others. One of our mission words at Westminster is service. Being there for other people. Living our faith outside just ourselves. But in order to serve others we need to remember others actually exist. Okay, right, we know that. But how many times do we feel like we’re on our own? I know I do. Get so busy or focused that I forget other people might be experiencing something similar, or even, something very different, from me right now…
So one here’s one way to practice opening to others. Not just saying hello and being nice, but, really listening. That’s where service begins. Offering a kind of empathy where we realize we aren’t all just separate isolated beings living our separate isolated lives. It’s the starting point for true compassion. And effective action. And a reminder that offering ourselves with kindness and warmth – doing that can warm us up too.
Opening to Others by Kirsten Czupryna
The past year presented me with many challenges as I was struggling to juggle a number of competing life priorities. I was toiling to complete a very large research project on a tight deadline while adjusting to a challenging new job. I hadn’t wanted to take on the new job until my study was complete, but concern over long-term finances pushed my hand. So there I was last September, burning the candle at both ends for the foreseeable future. I was exhausted and stressed, working during the day and then writing in the evenings and on weekends. Add to this mix that I had once again said, “Yes!” to participating in the connection groups as a facilitator on Sundays, a day that I knew I should have devoted entirely to writing. “Why had I gone and done this crazy thing?” I asked myself over and over as I looked at my Google calendar, which was now a jigsaw puzzle of colored boxes to mark competing time commitments. I was so worried that I wouldn’t make my research deadlines that I even considered backing out of the connection groups. But I just couldn’t break my commitment, I knew. I would have to tough it out and find a way to make up the lost time.
As you may imagine, I was not always in an ideal state of readiness to bask in the bliss of connection when Sunday afternoons rolled around. I was often tired and stressed from writing all day. When I got into my car, my mind was usually turning over and over some unfinished piece of what I had been writing or a chunk of data that I was trying to make sense of. I would often be delayed in traffic and arrive at Westminster in the nick of time for the chalice lighting.
You wouldn’t think that, given how I arrived, I would derive much from the group experience. However, this consistently turned out to be absolutely not the case. In fact, the exact opposite was true! No matter how stressed or distracted I was when I arrived for the group, I somehow always quieted and turned deeply inward over the ninety minutes I spent with my fellow congregants and “connectors.” I was soothed and entranced listening to the experiences of others, becoming immersed in their stories, their struggles and epiphanies. The group’s shared reflections on a monthly theme were always powerful reminders that, while we bring a multiplicity of interpretations to the discussion, we all express, over and over, the same primal need for understanding, connection, and belonging. Despite so many differences, we are all the same in that regard. Within that safe, common space, I found myself opening and sharing in a way that felt natural and often, healing.
My drive back home was always a very different experience than my drive in. I would sometimes find myself tearful, filled with gratitude for this monthly reminder of the unbreakable connection we all share. Now, I could never imagine giving up such a rich experience. Of course it helps that my research is complete and I have settled into the new job. But of course, I know it is much more than that. The connection groups are truly a lifeline for me, a constant yet gentle reminder of our shared aspirations, longings, and simple awe at the workings of our universe. I find great peace in this.
Opening to Life’s Gifts ~ Introduction
Opening to life’s gifts is about leaning into gratitude. It’s about not allowing ourselves to get so caught up in the natural and cultural games of striving, proving and accumulating that we forget we’ve already “arrived” and are already surrounded by countless blessings.
Ultimately opening to life’s gifts is about waking up to life’s gifts. The practices and exercises help to remind us that life is not a game we are here to conquer or win. Instead it is more of a companion waiting for us to notice all that it has already offered us.
Opening to Life’s Gifts ~ by Julie Horwitz
Hi Everyone. My name is Julie Horwitz. Those who know me, know that unless I am teaching a class, I do not like to get up in front of a group. I am really a behind the scenes person. But when Ellen asked me to share about my engagement with connection groups, I felt like I had to. For the past two years I have been lucky to be part of two groups, both very different, both transformative. I am grateful for connection groups for so many reasons. It has given me a space to think, to be heard, to sit quietly and to wonder. It has given me directions for reflection and really good music to listen to along the way.
During my two years of being a member of connection groups I have also been placed in a really hard situation at work. I have spent the past two years being thrown into one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. It wasn’t hard like when I was in the Peace Corps, I had running water and electricity but it was hard because the stakes were high and I was the one in charge. During my two year run as Interim Co-Dean of the School of Education at my College, I was tasked with ….well, I had about a billion tasks. I had always thought I wanted to be dean eventually, I was on a specific track. I went through all of the steps you are supposed to go through in higher education. I got my Ph.D., I got tenure, I got a promotion and the next logical step was to move to administration. But it wasn’t all that smooth. I was in a position that I should be in but I wasn’t sure if I wanted it. Being in connection groups provided me a space to really dig into who I wanted to be when I grew up. What would happen if I didn’t want to take the next step up the ladder? Having the space in connection groups was essential for my decision making. It was a space where it was ok to not know, a place to be heard, a place of no fixing so I could play with what I was really thinking. I didn’t have to know yet and it was not the job of my connection group to know either.
I challenged myself each month to answer the questions in each packet. So it wasn’t just during the group where I felt the support and the space. Instead I used the questions. Each day I would write about one of the questions in my journal. What I found was I was all over the place at first, I was writing as if I were two different people. Then I got to the packet on Trust and realized all of these people were trusting me to do this hard job but I wasn’t trusting myself. The packet asked me “what would happen if your trusted life enough to let go and what would happen if you trusted that you are right where you were meant to be?” Well, that was novel..what if I could just stop thinking for a little while? So, I did just that, and the next month was about Journey, and the packet asked me if my path was about becoming who I really am or could it be unbecoming? I felt freed to change my mind. Maybe I was unbecoming the old vision of me as climbing the ladder and instead choosing to be the faculty I wanted to be. I found that after I answered that question, I started writing about different parts of my life. I felt like I was able to talk about different parts of my life and I clearly knew I didn’t want to be dean right now…and that was ok. That right now I want to go back to my old position..and that didn’t mean going backwards but instead making a choice. Those questions were my space to think without judgement, without being rushed , without knowing the answer.
There was one other activity that gave me power to make m choice. One of the activities was really the final piece that gave me strength to trust my decision. During the curiosity month, an activity encouraged the reader to get with a friend and pick some questions to answer about each other. I worked with a friend in the church. We each picked 3 questions we wanted the other person to answer about us. We then met to share what we thought. It was overwhelming to hear her words about me. It gave me power and permission …….
So, I really encourage you all to try out connection groups. While it wasn’t always to leave the house on Monday nights to go to church I never regretted going
We open to ourselves. We open to each other. We open to all of life’s gifts, including those that have been hidden by the pressures of our lives.
You are invited here, today, but always, really, every day, to explore those three lifelines, in whatever capacity you feel called.
And, you will find, starting in October, theme cards available with questions and exercises to support that journey, based on the theme of the month.
And, if you choose, you can join together with a group of people who are also using those materials – who can become companions on your spiritual trek. In fact, as mentioned, you’ll have an opportunity to try that out, to try out a connection group, after worship, a chance to connect in a deeper way at these 30 minute try it out groups at coffee hour.
There are many paths in life, and one opportunity today – if you’d like to try a connection group come to coffee hour for a 30 minute sample session. A chance to practice being counter-cultural, and minister to each others.
However we are called to walk our path, may we remember we are more connected than we can usually tell, that we have each other in ways we do not always recognize, and that there just may be more good in life than we are able to see, in any one moment. May we continue uncovering that goodness, every day.