Friday, August 27, 2010

Sermon: "Faithful Conversations" (Delivered 8-22-10)

Last June I attended a community organizing training. About one hundred people attended the ten hour training held over two days at a Lutheran Church in Westport. We were racially diverse, religiously diverse, socio-economically diverse, and we represented many different neighborhoods from all over the Kansas City metro-area.

The organizers of the event had assigned me a role. I was asked to deliver some closing words to tie the experience together. Sure, stand up in front of a large group and say something inspirational; I think I’ve got that covered. But then the details of the assignment were clarified. My closing words were supposed to capture stories, reflections, and sound-bytes from our time together.

I don’t know about you, but at events and gatherings like these I have a tendency to become a bit restless. When the presentation is taking place I find myself wondering, “Hmm… I wonder how strong the Wi-Fi signal is in this room. I better check.” I find myself wandering to the back of the room to see if all the chocolate chip cookies have been taken.

We didn’t just sit in one big group and watch the presentation. During the training we were assigned to have discussions at our table, either a discussion among our six or seven other table mates, or one-on-one with a partner. I don’t know about you, but sometimes in these situations my own listening is shortchanged by my own inner composition of the perfect thing I plan say when it’s my turn to speak. I’m sure that this never happens to you.

This closing litany that I was supposed to create for the leadership training necessitated that I adopt a very different state of mind. If I was going to capture stories and reflections, I was going to have to listen. And the final product, I decided, would not have a single word I composed. It would consist entirely of the words, stories, and reflections that others had spoken and that I would assemble, just like stringing exquisite individual pearls to create a beautiful necklace. The point of telling you all this is that this exercise, this discipline, of listening for those quotes and stories altered the way I was present, the way I was in the room for those ten hours. What was striking to me was how different this felt. To do what I was supposed to do I had to listen incisively. I had to hear the participants in their own voices and to be able to report what was said. Let me be clear, my role wasn’t heroic. I’m not bragging. It was just striking to me how much this simple assignment changed the way I participated, the way I was in the room.

The title of the service this morning—“Faithful Conversations”—is lifted from a collaborative program between Unitarian Universalist congregations from a large metro-area in the country. In that metro-area there are about a dozen UU congregations, including four large ones. Those four large congregations created a program a few years ago that they called “Faithful Conversations.” Over the course of two years, these congregations hosted a series of invitation-only evening events inviting the leaders from the four congregations to come together. The goal of these evenings was to train the attendees on how to think theologically. First, ministers representing each congregation modeled conversation on a theological theme. Then, those in attendance broke up into small groups and practiced engaging in a faithful conversation on a theological theme.

It is interesting to note how this series of “Faithful Conversations” events meshed seamlessly with the goals of one of the participating congregations. That congregation had established three goals for its members. Those goals went something like this:
Our members are able to think theologically and engage in meaningful spiritual practice.

Our members are able to go deep quickly in small groups and are able to connect across differences.

Our members are effective at leading social change in the communities to which they belong.
This morning, this sermon is about the second of those three goals, the ability to go deep in small groups and connect across differences. And, while this is not something we’ve adopted as a goal here at SMUUCh, I would actually suggest that the ability to participate constructively in small groups is a core religious competency that it is important to develop.

I say it’s a central competency for several reasons. For one thing, there is the possibility that the content that someone shares in a faithful conversation can be inspirational, informative, and a source of wisdom to us. What other people say can lead you towards greater self-understanding just as when you speak from the depths of your being it can also lead you towards a deeper self-understanding. Aside from the content of the conversation, learning to be disciplined in both our listening and in our speaking is important. As Unitarian Universalists we talk about the interconnected web of all existence. Our capacity both to listen and to speak from the depths of our being will partially determine the way in which we are interconnected one with another. Also forming relationships with other people, especially people from historically marginalized communities, the quality of the relationship is going to be shaped by two significant questions. First, are you able to hear and understand the painful experiences of another person? Second, do you know yourself well enough to be aware of the ways that privilege, as a byproduct of systematic racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, has played a role in shaping the person you are?

Earlier this week a friend of our church sent me a magazine clipping referencing a study of the neurological effects of intimate conversations.
A new study… has found that conversing can produce an almost eerie synchronization of brainwaves… Using a special type of MRI device, researchers at Princeton University imaged the brain activity of a student as she told of two person experiences… Researchers then scanned the brains of several subjects listening to the stories. Listeners who followed and enjoyed the stories quickly synchronized their brain waves to the speakers’. But if the listener didn’t like or understand what was being said, this effect disappeared, and brain patterns decoupled… The effect goes beyond the parts of the brain used to process language; during a good conversation, people will unconsciously begin imitating each other, using similar sentence structures, speaking rates, and physical gestures and postures. In fact, listeners can get so tuned in that they can even begin to anticipate what the speaker is about to say.
In the life of this religious community there are several opportunities on the horizon to engage in faithful conversations with your fellow church members. During the second week of September our Board of Trustees is sponsoring a week long experience called Connecting Week. This week will include open events such a wine and cheese reception, an “ice-cream for dinner” family gathering, a coffee time, and time set aside on Sunday mornings. During these event we will pair off into groups of two and those pairs will engage in a focused and intentional one-on-one conversation around four questions that the subcommittee designed. Everyone will then write down their answers on a set of note cards that will be provided and those note cards will be returned to the Board to inform their leadership. The board wants every single person in our church to participate.

Another set of faithful conversations will be taking place over the next several weeks as a group in our church continues to explore a relationship with the community organizing group, Communities Creating Opportunity, or CCO. Over the next several weeks there will be three or four house meetings held. These house meetings will invite people to come together and to consider whether there is a common cause shared widely by our members and how it might be possible to organize in such a way as to effect a change in our wider community, to take action so that we might move a little closer to the world as it should be. At these house parties people are going to speak from a personal place, from a place of intimacy, as they take turns speaking and listening to the question, “What keeps you awake at night?” After the first batch of house meetings, there will be a decision on whether to hold more or not.

But finally, the Connecting Conversations and the community organizing house meetings are just one-shot opportunities. And the ability to go deep in small groups is a core competency of religious life. For those people who want to develop this competency, who want to go deep, we have a small group ministry program. We used to call these groups “connection circles.” But, the name has been switched a little bit and we are going to try calling them “covenant groups.” And, I don’t want to get too wrapped up in the semantics, but it occurs to me that it is possible to find connection in all sorts of ways. It is possible to connect through collecting stamps or butterflies. But, these groups are going to stress a different sort of connection. I think they are using the term covenant intentionally to mean promise or commitment. And, these groups will ask people to commit not only to attendance (which is very important), but also to a way of being together, a way of talking and listening, a way of honoring and respecting and sharing that develops our capacity to go deep in small groups.

I’ve decided to end my sermon this morning by inviting you to practice engaging in a faithful conversation. The theme I’ve selected is “holy moments.” Earlier this summer I attended a worship experience on this theme. Several of my colleagues gave personal reflections on a holy moment in their lives before they asked us to pair up into groups of two, as I am about to ask you to do. During that worship service, the first person to speak shared this intricate story about an amazing interfaith worship service she helped to lead, a service that spoke to the deep hurts of the community, a service in a house of worship with cathedral ornamentation. And it was a good story, but I became concerned. Was this going to turn into a bragging match? Was this going to turn competitive? The next person took it in a completely different direction. He talked about vulnerability, a time when he had experienced failure. The holy moment for him came from those who offered abundant forgiveness, from those who responded to his shortcoming not by distancing themselves, but by drawing nearer and embracing himself for his vulnerability.

So this wasn’t going to spiral into a series of arrogant boasts. But, was it going to descend into a pity party? The third person spoke. She began playfully, “Oh, so now we have the ability to decide what’s holy and what is not. Maybe UU folk singer Peter Mayer is right, and everything is holy. But, what makes us think that even if the holy smacked us right on our foreheads that we would even notice it?” She went on, to describe her practice for writing eulogies for memorial services, which involves waking up at four o’clock in the morning on the day of the service to compose them. She described a recent time when she had done this and coming to the realization that holy moments are something that we choose.

Next it was our turn and now it is your turn. In just a moment I want you to pair up with one other person. The topic, the theme, is a time when you have experienced the holy. You are all adults; do your own defining.

[After I gave a few more instructions, I had those in the congregation share in one-on-one groups about a holy moment in their lives.]