Hearing One Another

Homily from July 21st
by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a child went to play at a neighbor’s house. When the time came and went for her to return home, her parents began to wonder where she was. They called the neighbor, who confirmed that the child had left already. Just as her parents were about to go looking for her, she opened the front door. Relieved, but concerned, they asked their daughter where she had been, why it had taken her so long to get home from the neighbor’s house. The child explained that she had stopped to help another child who lived in the neighborhood, whose brand new bike had just broken.

“Help him?” said her parents. “What do you mean? Did you know how to fix his bike?”

“No,” answered the child.

“Then how did you help him?” they asked.

“Well,” she said, “he was so upset when his bike broke, that I stopped to help him cry.”

Sometimes what makes the biggest difference to someone with a problem is not, in fact, fixing their problem for them, but rather simply being with them as they face it, reminding them that they are not alone.

Let me tell you another story.

Many years ago, I attended my first ministers’ retreat. At such retreats, Unitarian Universalist ministers from all over the region gather for three or four days, to participate in some program of continuing education, to be sure, but really the primary purpose is to spend time with one another.
I remember this retreat because being there helped me to get through a very hard time.

It was a pretty large group of ministers, so at first all we could do to check in was go around the circle, give our names, and say where we were from. A little later on, then, we broke into smaller groups and dispersed to different parts of where we were meeting for a deeper check-in. And yes, we went deep.

I’m sure that some of my colleagues knew each other already. I hadn’t met any of the others in my small group before then, though I knew a couple of them by name. But as we took turns to share more deeply about what was going on in our lives — the joys and the sorrows, at work and at home — I immediately felt a sense of trust. The fact that we were all willing to listen to one another — without interrupting or fixing or giving advice or correcting one another, just listening, as deeply and as compassionately as possible — made it possible to be vulnerable in a way that I had never experienced before. And it made a huge difference to me.

I continue to rely on my colleagues, to have places where I can bare my soul about what’s going on for me, because I’ve realized it’s essential for me to have such places. Yes, sometimes I want advice, but mostly I just want to be heard, to be reminded that, even though nobody else can fix my problems for me, I am not alone in facing them.

Let me tell you one more story.

Once upon a time, there was a congregation that had time at the end of the service for people to provide direct feedback on the sermon. This time was called “talk back”, but it might have been better named “give the speaker a piece of your mind”. A few people in the congregation would do just that, criticizing whatever had just been said and then leaving, rather than waiting to hear what anyone else had to say. Perhaps it was good that they left, though, because when it came to the annual meeting, discussions would descend into bitter arguments. There was even name-calling.

Then the congregation decided to try something new. They began a program where, twice each month, members gathered in small groups to listen to one another. Anyone in the group could say pretty much whatever they wanted to say, and everyone else would simply listen. No interrupting, no fixing, no giving advice, no correcting one another. Just listening, as deeply and as compassionately as possible. Not every member of the congregation was in such a group, but over time most of them had participated in the program, and the congregation’s culture began to change.

When it came to someone speaking of personal matters, people were better at actually listening, rather than not really hearing the other person because they were too busy thinking of what they were going to say next.

When it came to someone expressing an opinion, people were better at truly hearing what that person had to say, not necessarily agreeing with them, but respecting that person’s ownership of their own position.

And when it came time for someone to finish speaking, people were better at allowing for silence before immediately rushing to fill the space with their own words.

Some of you know that, yes, the congregation in this story was this Fellowship. And the program that was a big part of changing the congregation’s culture is our Fellowship Circles program, where small groups of people get together to practice listening to one another. Something as simple as listening makes a big difference.

So this morning we’re going to hear from three participants in our Fellowship Circles — Lehni Lebert, Randy Phillips and Pam Luke — who will share with us the difference this has made to them personally. We’ll hear what they get out of being in a Fellowship Circle, how has it challenged them, and what it means to them that the congregation offers this program.

A new round of Fellowship Circles starts at the end of September, and Gayle Phillips, to whom I am very grateful for coordinating this program for the last few years, will be pleased to talk to you after the service about registering for a circle. I encourage you to give serious thought to joining a Fellowship Circle. There are so few places in our lives where we can go to be heard, where others are truly listening to you, deeply and compassionately, without interrupting you or fixing you or giving you advice or correcting you. It seems like such a simple thing, but it makes a big difference, both to us as individuals as well as to our community.

If the purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to practice community as deeply and as thoroughly as we can, then Fellowship Circles and other spiritual development groups are a key part of that practice. I like to imagine what a difference it would make to our wider society, how it would inform our sense of community, if enough people could learn to listen to one another. If I had the ability to enroll all of the politicians in Washington in a UU program, well, okay, the first I’d have them all do is Our Whole Lives, our age-appropriate sexuality education program, but the second I’d have them do would be Fellowship Circles. Being heard, being able to hear one another is that transformative. I invite you to be a part of that.

We are now accepting registrations for the new cycle of Fellowship Circles. You can register by printing out and completing this form or by visiting Gayle's table outside the Sanctuary on a Sunday morning. For more information, you can also send an e-mail to fellowshipcircles@uufp.org.

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