“We are a people who normally would not mix. But there exists among us a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful. We are like the passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain’s table.”
Some of you might find these words familiar. Many, unfamiliar. Some of you might know them as one would their bible verses–they are etched in your hearts, recited regularly like a well worn prayer.
These words were written by Bill Wilson, or Bill W., as he’s commonly known as, one of the founders of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Those particular words were written in 1939 and begin the chapter entitled, There is a Solution, in what is called the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
As many of you already know, my relationship to the Holy, to God, my life in ministry all began in the rooms of recovery. It has provided me with instructions on Hope and Love and Living. It has taught me about altruism and service, radical welcome and forgiveness, introspection, and amends. And it has taught me about fellowship. True fellowship.
I have spent 21 years in recovery and have spent a good half of them working to articulate, nail down, what it is about this fellowship thing that is so powerful in those rooms. The kind of fellowship that literally saves lives, and my sense is that it’s power has to do with a few things: intentionally gathering together to share our stories, articulating the depths of who we are, and how we are, a place to be vulnerable and tender. A place To be completely honest with our fellows. To share experience, strength and hope, and to also have a place to throw up one’s hands and say ‘help for I am hope-less.’ This is fellowship-building. And last, and maybe most important. A place to listen. To be heard, without judgement, and simply thanked for sharing. To bear witness to one another with compassion and care. Don’t say a word, just listen. This is powerful, right?
And counter to most churches, AA isn’t having a problem with membership. They aren’t struggling with attendance. Church basements and back-room closets, these are most often where 12 step meetings take place, they are full to capacity on a weekday morning or afternoon. On a major holiday. During vacation week. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, also a woman of recovery, she says it this way: “There is a spiritual revolution taking place in your church basement. People intentionally coming together, talking honestly about their lives and connecting that with some kind of trust in the Spiritual Life. This is not an organization in crisis. They aren’t having meetings in AA wondering, “How can we get people to start showing up more?”
She diagnoses this without mincing her words, these are her words: “I think that there’s something about people speaking honestly about their lives in AA, and church is more about pretending your life is fine, and, I think, less and less people have time for that.”
Next week I will be bringing the prophetic words of Martin Luther King Jr forward and he speaks and preaches at length about the ravaging effects of disconnection from one another, because it runs antithetical to practicing and building intentional Beloved Community. But that’s for next week.
I mention this, not to say that we don’t have deep and good ways of staying connected and being connected to one another here at First Parish, NO! I bring it forward because true fellowship isn’t a destination point, it’s a practice, we Unitarian Universalists are committed to seeking and stretching, and the rooms of recovery have something to teach us. Good!
My take on the transformational, standing room only power of these meetings–this spiritual revolution taking place in our social halls–has much to do with the container created for deep sharing and deep listening. That’s it. A place of belonging where one feels that they can be their whole self, and–and this is key–that they are not alone. The power of the MeToo movement absolutely captured this piece. You are not alone. Me too. And church, true church, holds this potential as well.
UU theologian, professor, writer and minister the Rev. Dr. Thandeka–a spectacular woman who I had the great joy of being taught by–she is the founder of an initiative called Love Beyond Belief, and it’s also a book. And it touches on a variety of congregational needs–across faiths–eco justice, anti-oppression work, financial health, membership, mission, governance structure–but it holds tight to one powerful component, which is the transformational power of small group ministry, being placed in all of these areas. And the way she articulates small group ministry is, quote: “that it creates within us and among us direct experiences of care, support, and love that prompt acts of lovingkindness. They are a practice of insight, and reflection… They help us develop a deeper sense of who we are and what we can do together. They create the actual experience of Love Beyond Belief.”
And I want to be clear, she is not talking about a small group of people casually gathering to talk about a theme or topic or agenda item. And I’m not minimizing the power of these kinds of gatherings. Our virtual breakout rooms after worship have been–and you know this–powerful places to connect. But Small Group Ministry, capital S, G, M, which UU congregations across the world: yes, in Europe, Australia, Canada, and in hundreds and hundreds of churches in North America–the UUA calls it a ‘movement’ so many congregations practice and offer it. Small Group Ministry differs from casual small gatherings in that they covenant to follow an intentional format, and covenant, and this is at their core, to listen to one another in a particular way, which is called the spiritual practice of Deep Listening. This is the kind of listening practiced in recovery rooms. NO cross-talk, advice giving, interrupting. And it’s listening where we even practice not thinking about what we want to say next. Cultivating an awareness of that. Deep Listening is where we attempt (I told you it’s a practice) to still ourselves and just receive another person’s experience. Let them share and just be.
And you can see why Rev. Thandeka speaks of this as a true call to living and breathing our faith into all areas of congregational life and into the world. For this is a practice we get to bring to the world. Honestly, this is how we participate in healing the world. Really! Can you imagine if we lived in a world where people knew how to listen to one another like this? Where this is what we were met with in our day to day life? It starts with us.
And we need to practice this. And this is the right place to do it. And listen, when I signed up for a Chalice Circle, this is a common name used for Small Group Ministry in UU churches and it’s the name that we have given Small Group Ministry here at First Parish too, when I signed up for a group at my first UU church I made friends, lasting connections with people I never would have known otherwise. People who are my heart. My family. To this day. And what fun we had! We were not a solemn group. Not unlike Bill W.s’ description of the rooms of AA: “indescribably wonderful. camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervades!”
We need this kind of fellowship right now. More than ever. Right??
So. Registration For First Parish Chalice Circles opened on Friday, and it closes next Sunday, the 16th. You can read more about this and sign up through the Arbella. We have seven stunning Chalice Circle facilitators who are ready. Reach out to me if you want to talk more about this. My door is always open to you.
As your minister, I am asking you to make time for this. Give yourself this gift. Join us as we seek, and stretch and listen and laugh and love BEYOND belief. Join us. Join us. This is my hope and prayer for us all.
And so I say to you AMEN.