Covenant: a Path to Wholeness
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
Sept 17, 2017
Connection Group Testimonial:
9am service – Judy Adourian:
In September of 2013 I was the Chairperson of Westminster’s Caring Circle, and I was writing Religious Education curriculum. I had a son in Coming of Age and a son in Neighboring Faiths. I was scheduled to co-host a Coming of Age Game Night; co-chaperone some Neighboring Faith field trips, and co-lead OWL and Neighboring Faiths classes. My calendar was filled with Westminster. I must have had a lot of free time, right? Not so much.
I had a son in his first year of high school and a son in his first year of middle school. While my husband juggled his hectic retail work schedule with our family obligations, I chauffeured our sons to cross country practices, bowling tournaments, and Student Council meetings. I coordinated everyone’s schedules with healthy dinners and a clean house. I balanced my own freelance writing deadlines with the editing and marketing services required by my clients.
I had a gravely ill uncle and a brother-in-law who’d been unemployed going on three years.
The list of who needed me went on and on. I’m sure my life at the time sounds similar or even tame compared to the multitude of responsibilities you face in your life. We’re caring people. And caring people are needed. And needed. And needed. For me it felt like everyone wanted a piece of me. As I’d written in my journal one day: “Bless Kristen for asking me to give her a ride to her eye exam today, and bless the optometrist for running late. I spent the hour in the waiting room (away from any phone or computer), catching up with Kristen for about 30 minutes and indulging in uninterrupted pleasure reading for another thirty. Heaven on Earth!”
So with all this stress, why did I add one more obligation to my life by signing up for a connection group? Because there was only one piece of myself left to give — and I chose to give that piece to myself.
For an hour and a half, once a month I met with six other people. We checked-in. We read. We contemplated. We shared. Most importantly, we listened. We listened to what was said, to what wasn’t said, and to what our inner voice needed to tell us. Our goal was not to solve each other’s problems. In fact, our covenant directed the exact opposite — no advise giving, no cross talking, active listening only. Not once did someone say “you should” or “you need to” or “you mustn’t.” We listened more than we talked. We held sacred space for each other. Answers revealed themselves.
My life has changed dramatically in the past four years. I closed up my writing business to pursue new interests. My older son is off at his first year in college and my younger son will start driver’s education soon. I’m involved in other areas of Westminster including the Board and OWL for an older age group.
What remains, however, is my commitment to these connection groups as a Small Group Ministry facilitator. To hold sacred space for me and for you.
11am service – Laura Giusti-Haan:
I have to tell you that I can’t quite believe that I’m standing here right now. Up until about 4 years ago I was still recovering from my catholic upbringing and was continuing my adult-life avoidance of all things religious. Then a respected and very liberal cousin of mine in Lexington, Massachusetts, told me that her UU church had sent their minister, Ellen, to Westminster, and that I should check it out. I was very skeptical that I would find anything meaningful or useful in a church service, but because I trusted my cousin’s judgment, I agreed to try it once. How delightfully surprised I was to watch Ellen and our former RE director doing a dramatic reading of The Latke That Wouldn’t Stop Screaming, and how moved I was by the messages of celebrating diversity and fostering connection with others. Since that first day I have continued to be surprised by many wonderful aspects of the Westminster community, including my participating in the connection groups.
Once again, when first introduced to the idea, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get anything meaningful out of the groups, and not only that, I was also pretty sure I’d be uncomfortable sitting and talking with some people that I might not like or relate to. And, once again, I was surprised. My experience of participating in the groups is unlike anything else I have ever done- they create a uniquely peaceful space where I get to know myself, and the others in the group, simply by listening- listening to my own internal thoughts and feelings, and to others’, without needing to DO anything else. The most meaningful part of the whole experience for me has been realizing the power of listening to transform barriers into connections. Given the current events of our world, I am particularly grateful for this newly developing awareness.
Reading by Naomi Rachel Remen
Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes in the people around us. When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness. Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within the other person. That which has been denied, unloved, devalued by themselves and others. That which is hidden. In this culture the soul and the heart too often go homeless. Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; “ Margaret Mead once wrote, “indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
I love, small groups. I am passionate about them because I believe not only that we can change the world in small groups, but that when we do it in small groups where heart lives at the center, we, just as importantly, change our perceptions on the world, and our experience of ourselves in it.
We might even become happier.
That might sound like a tall order for a small group. But sometimes a tall order is exactly what we need.
I quoted the small group ministry facilitators manual in the service description: “Around us swirls a shallow, frantic, materialistic culture,” it said, “that leaves us cut off from our deepest selves, life’s gifts, and needs greater than our own.” – a rather discouraging take on the world we live in.
Discouraging and yet I find myself resonating with that statement. Maybe you do too. Maybe you too, feel sometimes like things are moving too fast, swirling around us, carrying us with it whether we want to go or not.. Maybe you too, wonder at the meaning behind all the frantic activity, the calls to buy this or that or be this or that do, all these things… Maybe you too wonder what’s missing – some deeper connection to yourself or a reason for being that seems always just out of reach?
I not infrequently feel like I am running at top speed from one thing to another to make sure it all gets done. I’m not even always sure what “it” is and why it’s so important that it gets done, but there it is, there is so much that feels like too much.
I think this is one reason we come here. One reason we walk through these doors in the first place is to find, literally and figuratively, a sanctuary from all that craziness. Something different. Something deeper. Something to hold onto. Something real.
And when we walk through those doors, many of us, what we do first is we breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t have to believe this, I’m not told to do that. I am accepted here. Just the way I am. It’s part of our first principle: we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We lead with compassion, we make room for all. It’s part of our covenant with each other.
Covenant, our theme this month, is at the core of that sigh of relief. Rather than all agreeing to believe this or that, we, as UU’s, instead, agree on how we will be with each other, we instead agree on how we’ll relate with one another. So, there’s no required list of things to do, no boxes to check, no “you must” or “you will.” There’s a lot of room here.
Which is so good when you’re coming in from a world that forces and coerces and pushes and pulls. It’s good to breathe in flexibility and freedom. It’s good to be reminded that we, each of us, at our core, are good, that we can be trusted to find the voice of our own deep wisdom, our own spiritual path, our own soul journey. We don’t need others to tell us what to do, in fact sometimes that’s the opposite of what we need to grow as spiritual people. It’s good to be reminded that we’re good, that no matter what mistakes we’ve made or make, we are fundamentally ok, accepted, welcome.
That openness, that welcome, that reprieve can be so appealing, that we can forget there’s more possible. That there’s more than relief possible for our spiritual selves. There’s more than just openness that’s available here, there’s also support, and encouragement, there’s also hope, and possibility.
Our UU theology of covenant, while it leads with acceptance, also invites us into more.
Rev. Victoria Safford writes that “a covenant is an aspiration, made new every day.” And those of you who came to our Water Communion service last week, you had a chance to write down a covenant, a promise, you wanted to make to yourself or this community. And together we created a beautiful river.
A river of covenants – river of promises, of aspiration. You pledged to listen more, to care more deeply, to take better care of yourself, to sing. To sing! To love this life as it is, to accept what you have and make of it what you will.
That river on the doors of our hall next door is beautiful to me not only because it’s blue and it’s wavy and it’s appealing to the eye, but because, as I read these scribbled jottings and imagined the yearnings behind them, I was touched by the shared vulnerability of our humanness – we need to keep making promises because we break them all the time. And, it’s beautiful to me because while so often we feel we aspire all alone, that river demonstrates through the sheer number of bright blue droplets, that really we’re so much in this together, our experience is so shared.
So covenant: is what invites us in with open arms exactly the way we are today – even as it invites us, more and more, to become who we are meant to be.
And today, I want to talk more with you about one way to accept that invitation, one way to deepen the spiritual dimension of your experience here, one way to live into and lean into your own hopes for yourself and this community. Today I want to talk about fresh ways we might apply the themes of the month, through questions and spiritual practices, as well as the potential power of small groups, connection groups, also called, in some churches, covenant groups. An invitation to more.
First, those small groups.
That swirl, I mentioned earlier? That pushing pulling prodding culture of ours that tells us what to do and how to do it and when to do it and most of all to keep on doing it. It’s not just out there… Eventually, all that noise, it gets in here [point to head] and here [point to heart]. All those expectations that get put on us? Eventually, we start to put them on ourselves. Telling us to go this way (point to the left and the right at the same time), telling us that we’re not good enough no matter what we do, telling us we don’t have time to sing, to enjoy, to live. Hearing the sound of our own voice amidst all the noise, can feel just about impossible.
And yet, our theology tells us, we have that wisdom inside us. We have the capacity to hear what we need to hear, access our own elusive truths, reconnect with the wisdom of our soul. Certain settings are conducive to that kind of reconnection. Like small groups in which open listening is at the center, in which we make agreements with each other not to interrupt, not to give advice, not to try to fix each other but instead make room, for you.
“The soul is shy.” Parker Palmer writes, in his book, a hidden wholeness. “Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense under-brush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out… A circle of trust is a group of people who know how to sit quietly “in the woods” with each other and wait for the shy soul to show up.”
So 1 gift, of these kinds of heart-centered small groups, is the potential for reconnection with your own deep wisdom.
But just as that swirl, all those voices, telling us to do this and that… just as that swirl can be absorbed by us, impacting us – so too does it impact others through us. As I heard said this summer, when we’re bumper to bumper on the highway, we’re not only in traffic, we are the traffic. And when it comes to the noise around us, it’s a rare person who hasn’t been conditioned to throw our hats into the verbal ring. We’ve all been trained, in this culture, to speak up, say our piece, give our opinion, and maybe most of all, to help. We have so much good advice!!
We might find, you may already have found, that all our good advice doesn’t always add up to lasting change for another person. You may have found that our opinions, well-researched as they might be, don’t necessarily change minds, or grow feelings of warmth between us and the person we’ve just [generously] shared them with. And you may have wondered, all those great ideas you have, well, was that really what they needed from us?
Maybe, what they need, is our listening, our support, and our confidence that they will find their way.
In a circle of trust – the kind of heart-centered, listening-oriented small group I am talking about, we covenant around the guideline: “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” In a group like that each person gets the gift of being deeply heard and each person gets the gift of learning how to really listen. A gift that will stand us in good stead not just here, but everywhere in our lives where we hope to support others to become themselves.
And we gain too. Because when we stop worrying about their problem, and instead start trusting someone else’s ability to handle their life themselves, we free ourselves too.
Rumi once said: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
When we listen, just listen, to someone, trusting their wisdom, trusting that they can find their way, we remove the barrier of our own opinions, judgments, and worries, and make room, for them, we make room, for something fresh, and different. A different way of seeing each other and relating.
So two gifts – the gift of a space to reconnect with your own deepest self. The gift of connecting or reconnecting with others.
And there is a third gift. The gift of reconnecting to life’s gifts. Of bringing our theology, to life, literally.
How many of us go home, after some inspiring event with renewed resolve to pursue a new direction in life only to find our prior commitments closing in on us soon after we leave the building? How many of us find some new insight, but without a clear idea of what to do with it, where to go with it, find it stays as just a thought? Or, how many of us find ourselves reading or thinking, or talking, about spiritual themes, but don’t see their promise in our day to day lives.
I heard somewhere that it’s pretty hard to think ourselves into new ways of acting. But, ironically, we can act our way into new ways of thinking.
Sometimes, we need to jump in, and take action, try something, experience something, put our spiritual insights into practice.
So this year, I invite you, every one of you, to join me in picking a question and a spiritual exercise to try out each month. A question that speaks to you, an exercises that strikes you.
For instance, if the theme were “grace” you might pick an exercises about bringing grace (a gift one doesn’t expect, earn or even deserve) into another person’s life that month. The goal is to “be grace” not just talk about it. Another example: if the theme were prayer, materials would be available on the meaning of prayer and perspectives on it, but you could also choose to try a practice of some new way to pray (or even try prayer for the first time!).
In that way we don’t just think about a theme, but we practice it, and bring, our faith, to life.
If you join a group, you’ll get to talk about your experiences there. Support each other, hear each other, gain perspective, have company, on our spiritual journeys together.
Three gifts: Re-connection to self, to others, to life itself. The antidote to a swirling culture that cuts us off, one path back to wholeness, healing, things that have felt out of joint falling into place and maybe even just a little more regular, everyday happiness.
Sound like magic? Well, it is, and it isn’t. It doesn’t happen automatically. It takes intention and commitment, and it takes some time to develop the trust in a group that allows for the kind of deep listening I’m talking about. It takes time, for the participants to wrap our minds and our hearts around a different way of being together. It takes willingness for each of us to let our own guard down, just a little, open up and let something new emerge for us. It’s not always comfortable, trying something different, but when it works, and I’ve seen it work – it’s beautiful. Like magic.
I will first give you some facts….. We begin in October. You’ll see little cards on tables – question cards, spiritual practice cards, that’s similar to previous years, but now, you are encouraged to take them with you. To read on the bus, in the carpool, while you eat your breakfast. You could even bring a theme question to the family dinner table as a discussion topic, see what your spouse or children have to say about it. This year the children, too, are exploring these same monthly themes.
Whether or not you join a group, everyone is invited to participate in bringing your faith to life through living these questions, trying the practices.
If you do want to join a group signups start today in Smith Hall. Every year we tweak these a bit and I’m particularly pleased with how we’re doing them this time, there’s less reading and less writing, more sharing and more gratitude. The groups meet in the fall and spring so you get a chance to develop that trust. And if you’re not ready for a whole series, Carolyn Cure and I will lead 3 drop in groups this fall.
Whatever you choose to do, whether you join a group or not, whether you do every spiritual practice or none, however you feel called to participate in this covenantal community, however you choose to live your faith, let us remember these two things. Here, we, you, in particular, are welcome with open arms just as you are, And here, you, we, each of us, are invited, to become who we might be.
And sometimes, magic happens.