Posts Tagged Small Group Ministry

How to Listen

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 4th 2013.)

Reading: “Deep Listening” by Mary-Elizabeth Cotton

Sermon: “How to Listen”

About ten years ago I worked in a university research group that met at lunch-time each Friday for a presentation.  The food — usually pizza — was provided and the presenters were often people from inside the group but were sometimes researchers visiting us from elsewhere.  The typical format had the presentation itself lasting around forty-five minutes and then there’d be time for questions and general discussion.

The room where we met was perhaps half the size of this Sanctuary, a simple rectangle with a screen on one side and tables arranged in a squared-off ‘U’ shape so that people could sit and eat and listen to the presenter.  Maybe it was the intimacy of the space, as distinct from the anonymity of, say, a big lecture hall, but it wasn’t unusual for people to interrupt the presentation by asking questions.

After being in this research group for a while I noticed something.  Sometimes the questions were simple requests for clarification or for the presenter to repeat something.  More often, though, the questions were more involved, and either distracted from the point of the talk or pre-empted what was going to come next anyway.  In those cases it was clear that the person asking the question wasn’t really listening to what the presenter was saying, and was instead thinking about the question they were planning to ask.

Now this sort of thing is to be expected in an academic setting, where ideas are supposed to be debated and tested and compared so that bad ideas can be weeded out and good ideas can be made better.  And in everyday life, we’re used to the back-and-forth of conversation as a dialogue, where giving advice or making suggestions is usually okay, and where whoever is not speaking at any given time is more often than not thinking about what they’re going to say next.  This is what might be called “regular listening”, though it’s really characterized by the basic sensory experience of hearing rather than the intentional, conscious act of listening.

Then there’s what is called “active listening”, which is what is supposed to take place in a classroom or a learning circle or during counseling or therapy.  Here the focus is on particular subject matter or issues.  The content of what is being said is evaluated by the listener, and may be reframed or reflected for clarification.  There is also a concern for the consequences of the conversation, in that its purpose may be to teach something or to develop understanding.  It’s called “active” listening in contrast to a passive activity where what is said is simply heard; rather, the hearer becomes a listener by actively engaging with what is said.

That’s all well and good.  Both regular listening and active listening have their value.  In a congregation such as ours, for instance, regular listening is the casual conversation that takes place before, between and after services, right outside the Sanctuary doors.  It’s the “small talk” that comes into the building with us as we arrive for a meeting, letting us catch up with what is going on in one another’s lives, helping us to feel connected to the people we know and like and love, and conveying in whatever words are actually spoken a simple yet essential reminder: “You are human and so am I.”

Active listening, meanwhile, takes place in RE classes and discussions, in presentations and workshops, in committee meetings and planning sessions.  Active listening is essential if information is to be conveyed, if knowledge is to be gained, if action is to be taken, or if decisions are to be made.  Active listening, in other words, is essential to the success of the business of the congregation, whether that’s providing hospitality on Sunday morning or developing programs for advocacy and outreach or funding a healthy budget that enables our mission and ministry.

But here’s where we run up against an important truth.  All of that business is in support of something other than itself.  And reminding one another that we’re human is a start, but not an end.  If the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us, then we need more than either regular listening or active listening can provide.  We need what we call “deep listening”.

As doctor and author Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give one another is our attention.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.”

Deep listening is different from regular listening in that there is no conversation.  Dialogue, in fact, tends to get in the way, because when you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next you’re not actually listening.  And deep listening is different from active listening in that what is heard is not evaluated or judged, but simply accepted with attentive compassion.  It focuses on individuals and their experiences and their feelings about those experiences, and it is never, ever about offering advice or making suggestions or trying to “fix” the other person.

Now I’m more than willing to admit that this doesn’t come naturally to many of us — and that certainly includes me!  But it is something that, like most things, we can practice and get better at doing.  So I’d like us to do just that, right now.  Actually I’d like you to practice “active listening” first, since I’m going to give you some instructions I’d like you to follow, but I want you to hear the instructions in full before you start following them.

In a moment I’m going to ask you to pair up with someone sitting near you.  Whether you already know them or not doesn’t matter.  And if you don’t want to take part in this, that’s perfectly fine; just make that clear to the people around you.  Once you’ve found another person, decide between the two of you who will be speaking and who will be listening.  Then the speaker should start speaking, and what you’re going to speak about is something at least reasonably meaningful that happened to you during the last week.  Talking about something emotional is okay, but if the only thing on your mind has a particularly strong emotional charge, you should probably be the listener for the purpose of this exercise.  The listener, then, should simply listen.  No questions, no verbal responses, no conversation.  Just listen, deeply and compassionately.

After a minute or two, I’ll ring the bell.  (That may not seem like a whole lot of time, but remember that the point of this is not to convey information or an entire story about your daily life.)  At that point, the speaker should stop speaking, and now the listener will name the feelings that came across.  Was the speaker sharing a happy experience?  Or a sad one?  Was there regret or joy or fear or hope in what was spoken?  Simply name the feelings that you heard.  If there’s only one to name, that’s fine.  Then I’ll ring the bell again, and we’ll continue the sermon.

So now, please get into pairs and begin the exercise.

[The exercise took place!]

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has explained that “We hear with one aim only; we don’t listen in order to criticize, to blame, to correct the person who is speaking or to condemn the person.  We listen with one aim, and that is to relieve the suffering of the one we are listening to.”

Now unless those of you who were speaking were sharing a recent experience that troubled you, you may not feel that you had any suffering that needed to be relieved.  But I hope, at least, that in speaking you felt affirmed and sincerely heard.  I also suspect that, for more than a few of you, this may be the first time you have had someone else simply listen to you, without judgment or agenda.

As President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, has noted, people are now more isolated than ever before.  A 1985 survey asked participants how many people they knew in whom they could really confide; the most common answer was three.  Repeating the survey in 2004, the most common answer was zero.  Morales has called this “our greatest challenge”, that, in this age of text messaging and Facebook and Twitter, we are, in his words, “the most emotionally isolated human beings who have ever lived on this planet.”

As part of our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we offer facilitated opportunities to engage in deep listening, to bring people together simply to listen to each other, accepting one another’s words with compassion and without judgment, in the form of small group ministry that we call Fellowship Circles.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  I have invited some of the participants from last round of Fellowship Circles to share their experiences with you this morning.

[Read on the UUFP e-Flame the testimonials offered by four UUFP members: “Why I Am a Member and Supporter of Fellowship Circles”, “Turning Strangers Into Friends”, “The Quiet Heart of Our Beloved Community”, and “A Deeper Perspective”.]

Small group ministry affirms right relationship as a basic practice of life together, a way we live our faith that goes beyond petty pride and vanity to allow joy and pain to be genuinely shared, striving to be our best selves in fellowship with one another.  As we prepare to begin another round of Fellowship Circles this Fall, my question to you is not, “Do you have time to be a part of this?”  Rather, my question is, “Do you have the time not to be a part of it?”

I remain convinced that small group ministry is one of the most important ways we can save ourselves and our world.  Participants in our Fellowship Circles offer one another a safe space where they can share what is truly in their hearts, and that is the greatest gift that we can give one another.  As writer and behaviorist Margaret Wheatley declares, “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.  Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.”

May it be so.

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When the Spirit Says Do!

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 13th 2013.)

Reading: from “Get Religion” by Peter Morales

Anthem: “When the Spirit Says Do!”

A year or more ago an article by Congregationalist minister Lillian Daniel went viral amongst ministers on Facebook.  I saw it reposted by a number of my fellow graduates of all denominational stripes from the Iliff School of Theology as well as by Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Apparently she hit a nerve.

Daniel had evidently been on one too many airplane flights where the people sitting next to her had found out she was a minister and immediately needed to explain to her why they don’t go to church.  Now I can imagine this sort of thing happening to people in other professions during air travel — doctors who are asked to look at suspicious lumps, stand-up comedians who endure bad knock-knock jokes, and so forth — but perhaps it doesn’t happen in quite the same way — and quite so predictably — as it does to ministers.

As Daniel explained in her article, “when I meet a math teacher, I don’t feel the need to say I always hated math.  When I meet a chef, I don’t need to let it be known that I can’t cook.  When I meet a clown, I don’t admit that I think clowns are scary.  I keep that stuff to myself.  But everybody loves to tell a minister what’s wrong with the church — and it’s usually some church that bears no relation to the one I serve.”

In many cases, Daniel observed, the precursor to someone’s non-church-going testimony is a declaration of an identity that has become so well-known in the last few decades that it has its own acronym: SBNR or “spiritual but not religious”.  And while, perhaps as recently as fifty or sixty years ago, it might have been genuinely countercultural and shocking to any religious professional to encounter someone openly declaring themselves as spiritual but not religious, that’s hardly the case today.

After all, what religious group is the fastest growing in the United States?  Anybody know?  Yes, it’s the “nones”, by which I do not mean women who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.  The “nones” are those who have no religious affiliation and today they represent about a fifth of the American population.  And, as those of you who took part in last Sunday’s Adult RE discussion know, there’s a strong correlation between age and religious affiliation.  For instance, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the “nones” make up between a quarter and a third of the generation known as the Millennials, who were born after 1981.

There are other generational correlations, of course, some of which are amplified by whether people have a religious affiliation or not.  Adults born before 1928 are almost twice as likely to pray every day as Millennials, for instance.  Now the Pew Forum found that age doesn’t make as much of a difference as religious affiliation in some things, such as whether someone believes that the Bible is literally the word of God or not, while on social issues such as prayer in public schools and LGBT rights there are very big differences.  If you enjoy survey statistics, by the way, all of the data is on the Pew Forum’s website.

Now it’s interesting that there’s no particular correlation between the “nones” and those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religions”, and for that matter there are more SBNRs tend amongst Generation X and the Baby Boomers than the Millennials.  Of course, while the SBNRs tend to be, as indicated by Lillian Daniel’s article, something of a source of frustration for religious professionals, the “nones”, within liberal religion at least, tend to be viewed more positively, as potential new members, particularly the younger “nones”.  I know that this is a conversation that’s been going on within Unitarian Universalism — just look through some of the recent issues of UU World, for instance — and I’m pretty sure our cousins at the United Church of Christ have been talking about it, too.  To my mind, though, both the “rise of the religiously unaffiliated”, as PBS titled their three-part program about the “nones”, and the popularity of SBNR, to the extent that it’s become its own cliché, are symptoms of how most people understand — or, perhaps more appropriately, misunderstand  — religion.  And, not to be accused of promoting religious exceptionalism or, for that matter, jumping on the “the nones will save us” bandwagon, but I believe that there’s an emptiness in the soul of our society that Unitarian Universalism is especially well qualified to fill — in part because we’ve become aware of that hunger within ourselves.

Let me back up a bit before I explain what I mean by that.

When someone calls themselves “spiritual but not religious”, what do they really mean by “spiritual”?  I think it’s generally implied as being whatever life attitude is diametrically opposed to organized religion, particularly if organized religion is solely characterized by its worst excesses, such as rigid hierarchy and gender roles, antiquated dogmatism, and all manner of bigotry.  Well, there are plenty of things that are the opposite of the worst features of human nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re spiritual.  In her article, for instance, Lillian Daniel jokes about some people’s claims to be spiritual by seeing God in the sunset or in small children, at least when they’re saying cute things about God.  Her point is that spirituality isn’t just a matter of aesthetics or parental oxytocin.

Twenty years ago I may well have identified myself as SBNR.  I came to the United States with a suspicion of religion, not that I really knew anything about religion beyond the vague Anglicanism we’d been taught in school, including the distrust of Catholicism we’d been taught in history classes.  I had a similarly low opinion of what I considered to be religion in the US, which wasn’t based on much more than what I’d heard in the UK about American televangelists.  Similarly, if I had claimed to be “spiritual but not religious”, I’m not sure I could have told you what spirituality was either.

During the five years I spent in graduate school, though, my education included a lot more than physics.  From my Indian class-mates I learned something about Hinduism and Buddhism, and from a girlfriend I learned about Judaism.  Somewhere along the way I realized that maybe religion was bigger than what I’d been taught.  That by itself wasn’t enough to make me want to join a church, but it was at about that time that I converted to environmentalism.

Starting with the Sierra Club I learned about the problems afflicting planet Earth — by which I mean the problems facing human beings, because the Earth, by and large, would do just fine without us — and it quickly became overwhelming.  I couldn’t understand why more wasn’t being done about pollution and species extinction and climate change, and then I learned about the political process in this country and I just got angry.  I shared what I was learning with friends and co-workers, but few of them seemed to care much.

I realized I needed to find people who were motivated to really work on these problems at the same time that I needed to find people, a community, that would help me withstand the weight of my growing awareness.  Actually, I’m giving myself too much credit.  I never articulated such needs to myself, but looking back, I realize they were there, and in my searching there were  two different paths — one following environmentalism and one following science — that both ultimately led me to Unitarian Universalism.

I was skeptical at first.  I never thought that, as an adult, I’d choose to join a church.  (I certainly never anticipated becoming a minister, but life’s funny that way.)  But the people I met at the Unitarian Society of Hartford were generally friendly, they certainly seemed to think and care about the same sorts of things I thought and cared about, and I really was looking for a choir where I didn’t disagree with the words we were singing too often.

After being there for a while, attending services, going to a few potlucks and committee meetings, it was time for me to go deeper.  I became a facilitator in the Small Group Ministry program, which is like our Fellowship Circles program here.  The topic of the very first session was “Spirituality” and one of the first questions asked the people in the group what spirituality meant to them.  It quickly became apparent that most of them were thinking about it in similar terms, describing spirituality as a deep sense of connection: to other people, to community, to something larger than oneself, to something within oneself, to the natural world around us.  Spirituality as a sense of connection to the natural world was mentioned more than once, perhaps because we were in a chapel with large windows overlooking the woods behind the church building.

I’ve since realized that a deep sense of connection to either — or both — something larger than oneself and something within oneself allows for a broad spectrum of personal beliefs, including a variety of worldviews based in theism and atheism, naturalism and dualism.  Beyond any deliberate attempt to be theologically inclusive, which I don’t think was the case in our small group, everyone talked about spirituality in ways that focused on human awareness as a subjective experience.  We talked about the basic human urge to take our experiences and find ways to describe them so that we might understand them and make sense of the world around us, something that precedes any particular set of beliefs or ethical prescriptions.

Okay, so that’s one way to think about the “spiritual” part of being “spiritual but not religious”.  To claim to be SBNR, then, is to express a distrust of so-called “organized religion”, something that might be based on personal experience or on an awareness of other people’s experiences, where such religion has inhibited spirituality by stifling that sense of deep connection to something larger than oneself and/or within oneself.  Step back for just a moment, though, and it’s obvious that any true religion ought actually to foster spirituality.

Let me give you a couple of different analogies, then, as to how I think about this.

In the language of my past career as a research scientist, for example, our lives are like experiments, constantly generating results that we’re challenged to interpret and explain.  It’s nice when those results confirm the theories we’ve already developed, of course, but it’s only the unexpected results that have the potential to lead to new ideas and the growth of understanding.  A congregation, then, should be like a laboratory, providing the equipment needed to conduct those experiments, the tools to analyze the results, and the co-workers who help one another figure it all out.

The other analogy for the relationship between spirituality and religion occurred to me a few years after that small group ministry experience, when I was in seminary.

I imagined a tree, perhaps an ancient oak that had witnessed the passage of centuries.  I could see its roots, sunk deep into the fertile soil of the Earth, and in the folds and crevices of its trunk and branches I knew that it was providing shelter to countless smaller creatures.  Its limbs stretched toward the sky so that its leaves could better drink of the sunlight that shone upon it.

I considered how spirituality might be like that oak tree.  Growing forth from the eternal mystery of being, spirituality expresses our yearnings toward transcendence, all the while nourished by powers beyond our understanding.  Spirituality does not demand recognition for what it does or is, but quietly encourages wonder, reverence, gratitude, creativity and imagination.

Since I was in seminary to become a minister, my task was clear: to carefully and diligently tend the tree of spirituality.  It would be necessary to fertilize it and water it, yet also prune it as necessary, honoring it even as I remained aware of the limits of my comprehension.  And while some religion might be as mistletoe, sucking the life out of the tree on which it grows as a parasite — effectively creating people who are “religious but not spiritual” — I realized that the task of true religion was quite clear: to be a splendid garden in which magnificent trees of spirituality might flourish.  Those who dwell and work in that garden, then, are both “spiritual and religious”.

Looking back to that time when might have identified myself as SBNR, I recognize now that I was, in fact, neither spiritual nor religious.  I was waiting for the laboratory of a congregation that could provide me with the equipment, tools and co-workers to help me interpret and explain the experiment of my life.  I was looking for a religious garden that could provide the shelter and the nourishment and the tending that my fragile sapling of experience and yearning needed to grow into a real tree of spirituality.

And I’m far from unique in that.  I’m a member of Generation X, rather than being a Millennial, but we Gen-Xers aren’t too far behind the Millennials in terms of being religiously unaffiliated.  And had I continued to think of religion only in terms of that vaguely well-meaning Anglicanism or that laughable stereotype of American televangelism, had I never managed to stumble upon Unitarian Universalism, then I would have continued to be one of the “nones”.

And, really, it’s not surprising that there are so many “nones” within Generation X and the Millennials.  For when they reject religion, they’re rejecting rigid hierarchies that tell people what to believe, they’re rejecting gender roles that demean women in order to protect men’s egos, they’re rejecting antiquated dogmatism that’s so clearly at odds with what we know about the world, and they’re rejecting all manner of bigotry against their lesbian and gay friends, their multiracial friends, their Muslim friends.  Well, guess what?  Unitarian Universalists reject those rigid hierarchies and gender roles, the antiquated dogmatism and all manner of bigotry, too.

So what’s holding us back?  Why aren’t the “nones” becoming Unitarian Universalists in droves?  Why aren’t our congregations booming the way religious scholars and even the leaders of other religions say we should be?

My friend and colleague, David MacPherson, who preached here a few months ago, has many stories that he loves to tell, but one of them concerns “the nineteenth century newspaper editor, reformer, failed presidential candidate and Universalist lay leader, Horace Greeley.”  I won’t attempt to mimic Dave’s style but Greeley, as he tells the story, “was asked to suggest to a group of fellow Universalists some new device for financially supporting their struggling congregation since the fairs, festivals and suppers they had tried did not succeed.  His answer to them was short but definitely not sweet: ‘Try Religion!’

Well, a century and a half later, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, is suggesting the same thing, that it’s time we “get religion”.  We have “to take ourselves seriously as a religion”.  We have to remember “that religion is more about what we feel and experience than about our opinions.”  And we have to understand that “religion is relational because we are relational beings”, that “religion is something we practice together.”

Fredric Muir, who is minister to the UU Church of Annapolis in Maryland, elaborated on that third point in his Berry Street Lecture, delivered last year to the UU Ministers Association and printed in condensed form in the current issue of UU World, when he talked about moving from being the church that worships individualism — or “iChurch” for short — to being the church that embraces deep relationality through covenant as the way to the Beloved Community.

Because, as paradoxical as it may seem, the single most effective thing we can do to appeal to the “nones”, to the religiously unaffiliated, to the “spiritual but not religious”, the single most important thing we can do for ourselves, is for us to “get religion”, to actually act like the religion we claim, at our best, to be.  The “nones” are already with us in spirit.  They just need us to show them — and, in many ways, to show ourselves — that religion isn’t only what they’ve rejected, but also what they hunger for.

Let me give you, as I bring this sermon to a close, one specific example of this: social justice.  Many UU congregations — and I know, because I’ve seen it first hand — have a social justice committee that is largely ignored by the rest of the congregation and is made up of a handful of people who each feel very passionately about their own particular cause and who are each trying to convince everybody else to give up their passionate cause in favor of their own.  Two seconds of thought will tell you how well that generally works, and I know because I’ve been there and done that.  And most of the time, attending a meeting of such a committee, you’d have no idea they were part of anything larger, let alone a congregation.  And yet social justice work — really anything we try to do within a congregation, but particularly social justice work — must be grounded in spirituality and nourished by religion if it is to be effective.  To do good social justice work, we need to get religion.

So I was delighted to see another article in the current issue of UU World, right after Muir’s article about escaping from the cult of individualism, about how social justice activism can only be sustained by community, particularly by religious community.  That article is by Tim DeChristopher, the member of First Unitarian in Salt Lake City who is now famous for bidding on federal oil and gas leases at an auction in Utah in order to protect lands near national parks and for that was sent to prison for two years.  DeChristopher writes that “By its very nature, activism is an act of faith in our fellow human beings.  The greater the risk and sacrifice involved in the activism, the greater the faith required in each other.”  “And I’m convinced”, DeChristopher explains, “that the spiritually grounded activism of Unitarian Universalism holds the potential to not only make the [social justice] movement more principled, but also make it more pragmatic.”

And that, if I may finish with a plug, is what J— and I will be talking about next weekend at the Social Justice Workshop we’re running here at the Fellowship.  I urge you to attend.  Why?  Because by our fruits they will know us.  For if the true purpose of religion is to nurture the spirituality of both individuals and community, and if spirituality is that deep sense of connection to something larger than ourselves and something within ourselves, then the result, the fruit of the trees of spirituality, the harvest of the garden of religion, is an active striving for love and justice, spreading the seeds of the spirit that will grow into the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

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