Diane De Marco
Sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Community of Cambria
November 25, 2018
When I first wrote this service, I included reading to you our UUCC Covenant word for word. Instead, I decided it would be more meaningful to give examples as to how the behaviors we set forth could be applied to the members of this church. When we practice disagreeing productively, whether in church or in a political discussion, we help to evolve discourse and connection in the world.
What do you when people don’t meet your expectations? When the going gets tough with another member and you are disappointed with someone’s lack of follow through, or you want to avoid a particular person because they talk too much, or complain too often, or hug you too hard, or invade your space and give you advice especially when you haven’t asked for it...or they write weird emails, or they become someone you are now avoiding when you come to church?
You practice covenant. Rev. Jan Christian put it into perspective when she wrote,
Decades ago, a loving friend listened to my harangue about the incredible stupidity of the general public and then turned to me and said, ‘Don’t you just hate it when the world doesn’t live up to your expectations?’ Well yes, I do. And I also hate how I put my unrealistic expectations on the world and some of the people I love the most, including myself.
When you are disappointed with another, you have a chance to look at your own expectations and your deepest longings. When others are disappointed in you, you have “the chance to lean into their pain and learn new ways of going forward” (Jan Christian). One way you can learn this is by practicing covenant.
Eckhart Tolle, a popular spiritual author throughout the world today said that our purpose is “To live consciously, to be a bringer of consciousness into this world.” How do we keep our hearts open when they might be closing down? It is an honorable and intentional path to walk: To be aware of your responsibility in your story, to be aware of defenses as they arise, to avoid getting caught up in your own or someone else’s drama.
A covenant is a living document about practicing healthy communication through further awareness of our own behaviors. As human beings, we sometimes don’t really know what motivates our own behaviors. Freud was all about helping us to understand that we actually have a whole lot going on inside of us that we know nothing about. The covenant shows us ways to reconcile when relationships are moving away from love by becoming mindful of our own thinking and seeking to recognize our own intentions.
Through covenant, we learn how to treat one another with respect and dignity while we grow in our own understanding of ourselves. Our Covenant suggests ways toward healthy behaviors as a community.
Audience member interrupts: Why should you or your covenant tell me how I should behave with others?
Fair question. As human beings, we are built more for war than for love. We have more centers in our brain to pick up threat cues than anything else. That’s why relationships are challenging. We are all difficult at times and certainly complicated individuals. There is nothing more stimulating and baffling on the planet than relationships.
In spite of what most of us learned in school, which was that we take turns receiving and giving information, we are in fact constantly, continuously and simultaneously sending and receiving communication. We can’t possibly be accurate in our interpretations of others all of the time. In fact, we often misinterpret what is being said. Each one of us has a unique basis of interpretation, which is unavoidable. We need to check out what we thought we heard even more so as we get older.
When we fall out of connection with another, there is disruption, miscommunication and misinterpretations. Questions to ask yourself: Am I having this conversation from curiosity or defensiveness? Am I wanting to learn and grow or blame others? Is my communication open and with candor or wanting to defend my position, accuse or attack others or prove I’m right? If your motives are full of blame, you won’t grow in consciousness.
Many congregants still believe that covenants are about getting other people to stop behaving badly. In truth, it has nothing to do what other people do. We have a Covenant so that we can become aware of our part in questionable or negative interaction and then correct it. Another reason for a covenant is that most people have never taken a course in relational problem solving or learned the art of effective communication. Your Covenant has been carefully orchestrated to help with living up to the UU principles. It is a plan to help you deal with conflict when it arises. It encourages you to stay in relationship even when your reaction is to want to take flight, duke it out or go into a frozen state. These three survival tactics get solidified in childhood.
Audience member interrupts: You don’t seriously think we all need a document to tell us how to be with each other?
“You” questions such as “You don’t seriously think we all need a document to tell us how to be with each other?” is not really a question but leading to your own opinion. Instead, try language that only speaks to your own experience. “I’ statements clarify right away your own perception without putting someone else on the defensive.
Same audience member: “Okay. “I” don’t think we need a Covenant.
Yes, thanks for using an “I” statement, and I get that you don’t think we need a covenant. You’re not alone. You have a right to express it. However, as a UUCC member in this congregation, you have promised to work at staying in relationship with one another. We voted as a congregation to have this covenant. We agreed that positive relationships are at the core of a successful community and it takes work to create it and keep it that way.
Intelligent people know they have to study to be really good at anything: music, writing, math, astronomy, poetry. However, when it comes to relationships, there is this odd idea that people shouldn’t need to further their understanding if they really love one another. Actually, love is not about your feeling but more about your behavior and practicing healthy ways to treat one another when you least feel like doing it. That is challenging: to have the feelings and decide to not act on them. That’s a new area for some and takes a lot of practice.
Audience member interrupts: I can handle my feelings and don’t need to be told how to do it.
The Covenant is an agreement to be in community but also makes suggestions as to how you can process through conflict when you might be stuck and want to be reminded of tried and true ways of communicating. When strong emotions come quickly and you have more adrenalin in your system, you more than likely are not in a problem-solving mind. This is mostly when conflict arises. To address your comment... the way you choose to handle it is entirely up to you. What we actually all agree to in our covenant is concern for the well-being, openness, safety and stability of the congregation as a whole to be given priority and staying in relationship when the going gets tough.
Audience member interrupts: I’d say we’re strong and moving along pretty smoothly right now, so why not bring covenant up when conflict arises? Why stir the pot?
We are doing well. It’s a blessing. I am grateful for the kind, generous and compassionate group of people that we have in this congregation. But it behooves us to remember... None of us thinks alike or can read each other’s minds. We all have defense mechanisms that sometimes prevent us from practicing positive communication. Conflict happens when you least expect it. When it does, it deeply affects not only those involved, but also those who know or hear about the situation. A divide can happen in a heartbeat. When a heated situation emerges and if we have been practicing healthy interactions when little problems arise, we will do better with the bigger struggles if/when they become apparent. So we practice with individuals here at church and in our daily lives for the good of the whole. In turn, we become mindful of the well-being of the congregation above our own personal preferences.
Audience member interrupts: What does that mean? What if I don’t agree with what the congregation is voting on or what the board has decided and feel overruled or dismissed?
If the vote doesn’t go your way, or you don’t like a decision that is being made, know you have the right to have those feelings. Also know you can join the committee and get involved so your voice is heard. We all need to work at accepting a group’s decision when it doesn’t agree with our own. It’s fine to express your views, which UU’s have been known to do, but learn to let go even if you think you’re right. And when you let go, move on. Don’t live with resentment. “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. ...” Our Covenant asks you to listen compassionately with an open mind for understanding.
Audience member (mumbles...): But what if I’m not being heard?
Same audience member (SLOWLY): What if I’m not being heard?
Oh, heard. There’s a saying...We have two ears and only one mouth. We need to listen twice as much as we speak. Remember to listen with compassion... even if you are not getting it back.
Audience member (talks over last statement of speaker): What if someone talks over me?
Excuse me. ?
Same audience member: What if someone talks over me?
Set healthy limits for yourself. If you’re not being heard or validated, after you have heard or validated another, let him know you would like him to listen and not to interrupt until you are finished speaking. Try to bottom line your message. Maybe it’s not a good time. Ask to meet another time. Sometimes, anger can be resolved if you can be non-reactive to another’s anger. But that doesn’t mean he/she can call you names, label you in any way or be cruel.
Audience member interrupts: There have been times when I was accused of not listening when I asked a certain person to help me understand their thinking. I remember she was darn-right angry with me.
This is what I mean when I say that relationships get complicated. If you are shut down when asking for clarification, wait for a time when the other person is not triggered and discuss this with them. Tell them you need to be free to ask questions for clarification which leads to more mutual understanding. If the other person isn’t willing to talk about their intent or give information that you are asking for, you may want help with communication by bringing in a mutually agreed upon third party. This definitely makes us more accountable for what we are saying. But people don’t always do what we would like them to do. That’s the time you need to practice covenant anyways.
Changing yourself is the healthiest way for a loving relationship and community to progress. See your part in the conflict. Concern yourself more with accepting responsibility than with assigning blame. Ralph Marston put it this way: “Let the possibilities inspire you more than the obstacles discourage you.” Who knew I’d be quoting a professional football player? He has some great quotes. Here’s another. "Let go of your attachment to being right, and suddenly your mind is more open.”
Audience member interrupts: Seriously, most of the time, it is NOT my fault?
I saw a cartoon by Ashley Brilliant that said, “Most of my faults are not my fault.” I believe that’s true. Move beyond the blame game and that includes blaming yourself. We can still validate someone else’s viewpoint. You can see if maybe, there may have been some truth to something they may have said about you. It’s not about assigning fault but asking, what can I take responsibility for in this interaction?
In my spiritual work with the Diamond Approach, we have a practice called “clearing.” A woman, a new member in the group, and I were having a clearing. She told me she thought that I avoided her when seeking out a partner and she wanted to know if that was true. I thought, “that’s not right” but after thinking about it, I had to admit that when we were instructed as a group to seek out partners, my tendency was to look for more experienced members rather than the new-bees as partners. I then had to recognize that I did play a part in avoiding her even though it was not personal.
This clearing helped me realize an unconscious intent on my part and how I avoided beginners in the work. I never would have known that if it hadn’t been for her feedback. Covenant asks you to speak your truth honestly but with care and compassion. Transparency works to establish trust but remember that you need to feel safe to be vulnerable. What subject areas are difficult for you to discuss?
Audience member: When I get angry, I find it difficult to discuss anything. I read that it’s okay to feel all your feelings. Should I let the other person know when I’m good and angry?
Feeling angry is not bad. And allowing yourself to consciously express that anger is actually very healthy, both emotionally and physically. Healthy expression is good.
With that said, if anger stops you from acting with integrity in relationship, wait for another time to interact. Wait until you can think the issue through. Things said in anger never get forgotten. Underneath anger is often pain or fear. See if you can get in touch with that. It creates vulnerability and that is the key to connection. The Covenant is a promise to keep trying, to not be satisfied with negative energy with another, to act with integrity, seek mutual understanding and work towards the good of the whole.
Another point from our covenant: Avoid triangulation. Communicate directly with one another to resolve conflict. That means avoid gossip.
Audience member interrupts: Before you go on, I want to tell you about this woman, Janet, who complains and then talks about other people on certain committees ...( Diane motions her to stop with a Time Out Signal)
Good example of triangulation. If you have something to say about Janet, please tell her directly. Direct communication is healthy and we often get misinformed when information comes from a third party. I would like to read you a final story that describes what took place thirty-three years ago in a UU church. It has to do with “Joys and Concerns” and was written by Rev. Gail Geisenhainer of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was written in 2012, thirty-four years after it took place. It’s about a community that practiced covenant.
I was thirty-eight years old, living in Maine, driving a snowplow for a living and feeling very sorry for myself when a friend invited me to his church. He said it was different. I rudely refused. I cursed his church. “All blank-ing churches are the same,” I informed him. “They say they’re open—but they don’t want queer folk. To heck with church!” My friend persisted. He knew his church was different. He told me his church cared about people, embraced diverse families, and worked to make a better world. He assured me I could come and not have to hide any aspects of myself. So I went.
And I dressed sooooo . . . carefully for my first Sunday visit. I spiked my short hair straight up into the air. I dug out my heaviest, oldest work boots, the ones with the chainsaw cut that exposed the steel toe. I got my torn blue jeans and my leather jacket. There would not be a shred of ambiguity this Sunday morning. They would embrace me in my full Amazon glory, or they could fry ice. I carefully arranged my outfit so it would highlight the rock-hard chip I carried on my shoulder, I bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal I had harbored from every other religious experience in my life, and I lumbered into that tiny meeting house on the coast of Maine.
I expected the gray-haired ladies in the foyer to step back in fear. That would have been familiar. Instead, they stepped forward, offered me a bulletin, and a newsletter, and invited me to stay for coffee. It was so . . . odd! They never even flinched! They called me “dear.” “Stay for coffee, dear.” I stayed for coffee. I stayed for Unitarian Universalism. Over time, the good folks of that church loved up the scattered parts of me and guided me from shattered to whole; from outcast to beloved among many. And those folks listened to me. I and my life partner became their poster children for the brand new Welcoming Congregation program, designed to help congregations live into their values for effective welcoming of LGBTQ people.
Please don’t think the transition was smooth or swift. These were not imaginary super-heroes, they were human beings. And this was the mid-1980s. During the worship service on my second or third Sunday, a woman stood during Joys and Concerns to announce that all homosexuals had AIDS; all homosexuals were deviants who could not be trusted with children, public health, or civil society. All homosexuals should be quarantined, packed off to work camps to provide useful labor for society and keep their filthy lifestyle and deadly diseases to themselves. As the member spoke I slowly sat upright from my customary slouch. I tucked in my arms, looked furtively around to see who might be glaring in my direction, and tried to remember if I had parked my truck facing in or out in the parking lot.
In its journey of covenant, this congregation had just stumbled onto an important crossroad. But as Joys and Concerns continued, not one person made reference to the call to quarantine all homosexuals. The pulpit that morning was ably filled by a student from the local seminary. At the end of the sharing, the seminarian made a brief comment to assure us that not all the sentiments voiced this morning represented the whole congregation, and that was that! Now I was at my own crossroad. I left quickly after the service. But what about next Sunday? Would I go back? Why on earth would I go back? That would be . . . well, you fill in the word—dangerous, stupid, foolhardy, looking for trouble, probably hurtful. But back I went.
I was in the throes of learning my first lessons of being in covenant with a congregation. When we covenant to walk together through all that life brings, it means that when things get ugly, we don’t walk away. Oh, how we may want to walk away! But our covenants call us to abide and work things through. The next week, the regular minister was back. The service began as usual. I tensed up when Joys and Concerns came around. Someone announced something like a birthday, I can’t fully remember. But I vividly remember that, one by one, folks stood up and awkwardly announced that not everything said last week was right, or true, or representative of who we were as a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
The crossroad had been engaged. The direction the congregation would take was being chosen. This congregation would not get stuck in conflict, mired in name-calling, or diverted from its gentle, steady trek toward building the Beloved Community. Our aspirations were unfolding, one voice at a time. The congregation had passed a test. One among them had used language that depersonalized and endangered others. She tried to create a class of less-than-human persons toward whom violence would be acceptable. The congregation gently refused to follow.
But an even more extraordinary and wonderful thing happened. The congregation also refused to depersonalize or dehumanize the original speaker. They did not start calling her names: “That homophobe!” “That gay-basher!” None of that happened. While the speaker tried to turn homosexuals into objects to be manipulated, the congregation never referred to her in a way that was less than embracing and respectful of her full humanity. Later, in the same church, I opened the hymnal to find the words attributed to the Buddha, “Let us overcome violence by gentleness. Only through love can hatred come to an end. Never does hatred cease by hating in return.
We have a deep longing to connect. We are one of the most progressive churches, with a rich legacy of attracting the sorts of forward-thinking, open-minded intellectuals many of us like to think we are”—however, practicing the covenant is not an intellectual endeavor. It is one that comes from the heart in owning our mistakes, listening more to one another, and continuing the practice of evolving our consciousness. Thank you (Audience Member) Treva, for helping us do that today. Thank you, audience, for listening with two ears and a willingness to practice our covenant.
Benediction: As we stand in our circle, holding hands, look around. We are one circle, with one heart and one UU community standing on the side of love. Blessed Be.