Tag Archives: Small Group Ministry

Opening Words in Celebration of 25th Anniversary Unitarian Universalist Community Church

On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Small Group Ministry at Unitarian Universalist Community Church in the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the consolidation of All Souls Unitarian Church and Winthrop Street Universalist Church in Augusta, Maine. (October 29, 2017)

Spirit of life, love and all that is holy,
in these sacred halls
in the bonds of community
in the well of that which nourishes and sustains
we gather in the comforting arms of the care that cares for us all.

Into this holy gathering, we come
in search of relationships that are real, and
healing communities to bear witness to the life forever unfolding
beautiful, complicated, and true.

In this holy time, we pause
for almost two hundred years, Unitarians in Augusta
have sought the unity in the oneness
that which is known by many names but never really known

In our desire to touch and be touched,
see and be seen,
love and be loved,
we seek out each other that we may know God as Love:
in our midst, in family, in friends, and in thy enemy.

In this holy time, we pause
for almost two hundred years, Universalists have celebrated
the goodness of all of humanity and the sanctity of a life well lived.

In our search for healing and wholeness, truth and justice,
we strive in word and deed to create and sustain
a world in which all of creation is held in the light and love

In this holy time, we pause
for twenty-five years
unified and strong,
vibrant and real,
dynamic and engaged,
One by one we arrive,
Unitarian Universalists, united in faith.
One by one we arrive
into the hallowed arms of a community
of Life, Love, and all that is holy!

In this holy time, we pause
for twenty years Unitarian Universalists of Augusta
have gathered in small group ministry
seeking deeper connection,
cultivating meaning and purpose.

In the company of others,
exploring this faith
sharing the spiritual journey.

Together we make
this space holy,
this time sacred
and this faith real.

Come, let us worship together
as we have done for countless generations,
as we will do well into the future.

“…Well there we go then.”

Feb 9th Gwynfe (3)
…well there we go then.

This simple little Welsh phrase is very skillfully used to move a conversation along, to signify the topic has come to a natural close or to respectfully bring a conversation to an end, and, on occasions, to bring about an abrupt end. It may be that the conversation is inappropriate, uncomfortable, untimely or socially unacceptable, thus it needs to come to an end. Well there we go then is an effective tool. It is a conversation changer. It signifies a shift to a new topic and while it may seem to the occasionally foreigner (i.e., myself) to be a hiccup or conversation stopper, the Welsh just move along without skipping a beat.

I recall on one occasion when speaking to an elderly Welsh gentleman about a death in the village. When I had heard of the death, I immediately slipped into a pastoral response offering comfort and compassion. I, being an America who loves process, sought to be fully present to loss, sadness and grief. After a very brief interchange, the person replied, “Such is life. Things are born. Things die. It is the way of the farm and people. That is life.” Followed by, “so there we go then.” At which point I took the cue and moved, without skipping a beat, onto the next topic.

I stepped away with lingering thoughts on what had just happened. I was fascinated by what I had experienced and observed.   Having grown up in South Dakota, I am used to the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps and move on mentality. We call it Dakota bravado. But having now lived in New England longer than in South Dakota, I have developed a practice of engaging in deep process around matters of the heart. Moving on so quickly away from conversations around death and loss and grief seemed incongruent to the social and cultural mores I have grown accustomed to. Furthermore, as a minister, I was blocked from engaging the wares of my profession. Instead I had been politely guided to move on.

I was left pondering how much of life I churn through the cognitive and emotive process mill. Just a few months earlier, I had begun to contemplate the amount of time and energy I give to assessing and analyzing the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life. In doing so I kept encountering an internal impulse screaming “enough already.” Enough of the endless journaling. Enough of the frequent flyer miles on the therapists couch. Enough of the long conversations over coffee and dinner. Enough of the self-help books and self-actualization workshops. Enough already!

In the village, the Welsh wisdom in this simple phrase offered new insights worth considering, and possibly adopting. In truth there is no one-way or clear way on how to move through the challenges of being human in a complicated, messy global community. What works for one person in one culture is, as one might expect, foreign to another. Wherever we hail from or chose to live, we gather up an assortment of culturally influenced tools and tactics to help us attend to the daily moments, adventures in life and milestones as they arrive on the doorstep of our soul. How we chose, if we chose to attend lightly or process deeply is neither right nor wrong but rather a preference and choice on how to meander down the highways and byways of the heart and mind.

May your journey be an ever expanding path to a meaningful and purposeful life. And may your toolbox overflow with love, compassion and belonging to you and hold you when the times are long and hard.

Questions to walk with:

  1. How has culture influenced the way you deal with life on life’s terms?
  2. What tools in your box would be better left behind at the transfer station?
  3. What judgments do you encounter or employ when experiencing other people’s ways of walking through hardship and joy?

 

 IMG_3569

“Oh, I don’t know about that”

 

IMG_1680Oh, I don’t now about that.

This second Welsh phrase, “Oh I don’t know about that” was equally as fascinating. While on the surface it seems to be quite benign, in reality it has weighty relevance to this American writer. Over the course of fifty plus years, I have freely adopted, internalized and pushed back on a need to know or, at the very least, not let on that I don’t know. Yeah, I know, not such a healthy way of being in the world.

The first time I encountered this phrase, I was in the village pub having a conversation with a local farmer about a number of topics. As I began to talk about the Roman settlements on the mountains, he replied, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” A simple telling statement that I had ventured into a topic about which he was uninformed. Not a big deal, right?

For him it wasn’t. He didn’t know. He offered up no explanation for not knowing. No excuses. No apologies. No pretending he was more informed than he was. No false pretenses that he wanted or cared to be more informed on the topic. No diversions to impress. No diversions to hide his lack of knowledge. No gestures to encourage or welcome my insights or “enlightened” thoughts. Just simply, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

This simple, matter-of-fact statement took me by surprise. I don’t know that I have ever encountered someone who simply stated, “I don’t know,” while simultaneously asserting, quite assuredly, no need or impulse to know. I was caught off guard. I didn’t know how to respond or how to continue on. In that hollow space that is so often filled with curious interchange, I was left bearing witness to my inability to conjure up an adequate response where none was necessary.

I am not accustomed to people simply stating, for all to hear nonetheless, that they don’t know something. My familiar social, professional, religious, and familial circles are bursting with people who pretend to know, engage in knowing, and go to great lengths to be informed. And, let’s be clear about this, I am one of them.

Professionally people look to me everyday for an expansive knowledge base to inform our work together. My Ivy League education taught me to always be curious with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. Our American culture encourages us to be in the know. Our mainstream and social media bombards us with vast amounts of information everyday that we might stay informed on a wide variety of matters both relevant and ridiculous.

Throughout my time in Wales, in a variety of settings, I encountered people who simply acknowledged their inability to engage a topic or answer a question with such an unapologetic, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” Each time, I listened and observed with a desire to find, dare I say now, that same stillness.

Questions to walk with:

  1. Does this experience of needing to be knowledgeable have relevance in your life? How? Share an example.
  2. Where in your life do you present as if you know more than you actually do? What is your internalized response to being caught uniformed or without knowing?
  3. How might this phrase “Oh, I don’t know about that” change the way you engage with others? How do you suppose others would be changed by your willingness to simply, matter-of-factly assert without apology or fillers that you are uniformed about a topic?

 

The Discerning Storyteller

In each of us dwells a wonderer, a gypsy, a pilgrim. The purpose here is to call forth that spirit. What matters most on your journey is how deeply you see, how attentively you hear,how richly the encounters are felt in your heart and soul.
~Phil Cousineau

Standing on Mynydd Du over Gwynfe, the village of my ancestors. Photo by Phil Howes
Standing on Mynydd Du over Gwynfe,
the village of my ancestors.
Photo by Phil Howes

 By the close of the second week of my second trip to Wales, I encountered an internal resistance to posting the daily details of my travel abroad. Something about the public rumination and celebration of my deepening relationship with the Welsh people and the Unitarians seemed incongruent to the nature of a pilgrimage. About week four, as I tried to write poetry and prose, I kept circling back around to the feeling that I was telling stories out of turn. Three hundred words into a reflection and my internal critique would shut things down. I’d start a new thought and again, a few hundred words later, some internal wisdom resisted the need to write an article for public consumption about my interactions, affections and relationships with the people of Wales.

They had let me into their homes. I had met their families. I had listened to their stories of love and joy, sorrow and regret. I had called for tea and connected the relations across the field. I had come to know whose sheep where whose on the mountain side.

People knew of my activity. They knew of me before I knew them. They attended to my day. I was part of the local chatter. Some call it gossip, but I learned through experience, here in the village, it was more about knowing what was going on within the community. It was a way of expressing care and concern. It was about keeping an eye on the people you love. It was how they welcomed me into the fold. I had become part of a community that cares for each other.

I may have Welsh ancestry but in Wales I was still a visitor. I was a guest in their country. Still, having been received into the community with invites to tour the farm and show up for sheering, I was more than a passing stranger. As such I was having a hard time talking about the Welsh, my friends, my colleagues, my fellow Unitarians as an object in my pilgrimage, as an interaction along the way.

I had found a deeper place for this community in my heart; talking about them as if they were a moment in time or a spot on my map felt impertinent and irreverent. I trusted them. They trusted me. I cared about their stories and their lives. I knew who was dying. I knew who had died. I worried about who would be gone when I returned in a year. I worried with them about the future of their small chapels.

The responsibility of cultural pilgrimage, I have learned, requires the ability to be respectfully part of something beyond words and reflections and stories. I am still discerning how to talk about my time in Wales and the people I’ve met along the way, but one thing is absolutely clear, I hold them in my heart and soul as if I too were Welsh born and Welsh bred.

So there on the ridge of Mynydd Du (Black Mountain), transformed by relationships both past and present, I answered my grandmother’s call to come home and my heart ached. My spirit longed for all that I would leave behind. And that lump in my throat and the tear in my eye were simple expressions of my love for a people so precious and kind; a country so lush and green, a culture rich so textured and alive and a faith so joyful and bold.

Questions to walk with:

  1. Do you tell stories out of turn? What is this about for you?
  2. Is your conversation about others filled with care and concern? If not, how can you attend to that reality? If so, how do you speak in ways that express love and respect?
  3. How do you welcome the stranger into your midst?

 

 

Learning to Listen: Listening to Learn.

IMG_4617It is one of those age-old queries of who came first: the chicken or the egg. The same applies well to the age-old act of listening to learn. Or is it that we first need to learn to listen?

I find myself caught up with a mind that wants to hear what it wants to hear, and it is getting in my way. I am an English speaker trying to learn Welsh. Unlike those bilingual Waleans, I have spoken one language for some fifty plus years now. I am tuned into hearing certain sounds attached to certain symbols. As I lean in to listen to my Welsh tutor, the sounds blur. I am lost, frustrated and confused. As I lean in to listen, I hear what I want to hear, what I have heard before. I listen intently and work more diligently to hear what others hear but it seems my auditory and cerebral internalization of words are meet with my English perceptions, expectations and assumptions.

For instance: The North Waleans call that jutting rock formation there in North Wales the great orme but I hear “the great orb. Despite several patient requests to repeat the name, I still hear orb. I hear what I want to hear. My past learning’s, associations and perceptions shape my listening and as such my learning. My intruding assumption: it is a round protruding shape so my patient guide and friend must be saying orb. Stepping outside my worldview, an American English orientation, is a leap that doesn’t come easy. Eventually, I hear the story, the tale of the great worm, and someone points out the shape of a crocodile’s head. Now, I can see the wisdom in the word choice, and my mind finally arrives where theirs has been all along. I hear the word now, and it is orme, not orb.

Stepping outside of myself, all that I know, all that I have experienced and all that I have encountered to see the World through new eyes and hear the Welsh language requires of me an open attitude wherein I learn to listen. It requires of me a suspension of my way, my stories, my language, my sounds, my meanings, and my truth as center of the Universe. It is not an easy task but if I can be still long enough to empty my knowing to make room for other possibilities, then maybe, just maybe, I can begin to master the act of listening to learn, and truly know the grace and riches of this amazing, diverse, global community of which we all belong.

Questions to walk with:

  1. What assumptions get in your way of deep listening and new learning?
  2. When was the last time you were able suspend your knowing to truly hear what a loved one had to say? How did you accomplish this formidable task? What did you learn?
  3. What is one situation, one place, one struggle or one challenge that might dissipate or lessen, if I were to engage in the act of deep listening?
  4. Where will I make a commitment to listen to learn or learn to listen?

Ode to Silence

 

IMG_4721Here on the shores of the Irish Sea in the quiet cove of Nant Gwrtheryn, I am learning to listen to foreign sounds of silence alongside unfamiliar vowels and consonants, and combinations thereof, that form the Welsh language, Cymreig.

After a grand experiment to shut off the TV for one year(back in the 90’s), I learned to appreciate the quiet. Over the past twenty or so years, I have sinse come to cultivate with higher frequency silent spaces in my life. I have gone to great lengths to ensure that my day includes silence to center and guide my living. After five years of living out in the country off the main roads and along the shores of Maranacook Lake in Maine, I thought I had experienced the sentiment behind the words: deafening silence. But I was woefully mistaken.

So, when I first stepped out of the car on a coastal mountainside in north Wales for that grand view of the coast and the restored quarry village which would be my home for the next five days, I was struck by an eerie silence in the air, of which I was not accustomed to. The silence at Nant Gwrtheyrn was a thoroughly new experience. It was a silence like nothing I’ve ever heard, or not heard, before.

It would seem that in those seemingly quiet spaces back home, I have become accustomed to silence that includes the sounds of birds at the feeder, squirrels a play and the endless buzz of those high electrical wires as background noise.

At Nant Gwrtheyrn, there are no neighbors busy mowing their lawn or playing their music loudly then shouting over the bass to be heard down the hall. No loud chainsaws preparing wood for the winter chill. No loud marina with foghorns and boat motors filling the night sky. No motorbikes off in the distance. Here, along the Atlantic sea, in this hidden remote cove, the background hum of the electrical wires and the road noise of people going to and fro are blaringly absent, just nonexistent.

Here, at Nant Gwrtheyrn, the sheep on the hillside move softly on the edge while the bird song quiets with the setting sun. No breeze to rustle the trees. The sea is as still as I’ve ever seen. There will be no surf to interrupt the deafening silence tonight.

Just lovely silence, empty airwaves, pure as new fallen snow, and as still as dew on the morning grass.

Silence, dear silence, a welcome guest in my home. I savor the peaceful stillness beyond the chaos of love’s encounter. I crave the silence to quench my mindless and busy reaching for all the does not matter. Oh yes, how I love that last quiet moment when morning breaks on dreams dancing into the horizon.

Here ,at Nant Gwrtheyrn, the silence arrives abundant with outstretched arms ready to wrap the weary soul, the learned traveler, the inquisitive mind and the incipient muse.

Here, at Nant Gwrtheyrn, I cozy up and savor the silence, letting it wash over my being and touch the depths of my soul with restorative wisdom like an ancient sage with a young apprentice by her side.

Questions to walk with:

  1. Where in your days do you long for and savor a moment of silence?
  2. How might you find more time and space to commit to the act of being still?
  3. How do you engage in busyness to fill up the space of the deafening silence?
  4. What do you think you might find if you nurtured a spiritual practice of cultivating silence?