Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

October 11, 2015: “Being in Withness”

Centering Thought: “We are in a world that is connected, but not communicating.” — Tariq Ramadan

Personal Reflection Patrick McGovern

I’ve always loved an underdog.

Maybe that goes some of the way to explaining my love of Cleveland sport teams and the Browns, in particular. After all, why would I be so passionate about being a part of a group rooting for a team, indeed a city, that hasn’t won a championship in over 50 years? Isn’t it about winning?

Last year, something exciting happened: the Browns took advantage of the opportunity to draft a young quarterback out of Texas A&M by the name of Johnny Manziel. Johnny Football. He won the Heismann trophy in his freshman season. He set all sorts of records in his two seasons starting at Texas A&M, scrambling around and throwing from the hip! He was a college legend.

Now Johnny was coming to the NFL and he was going to change how the game of professional football was played. And he was going to do it in Cleveland. All the talking heads said so. All the Cleveland fans were psyched! Our savior was here!

Well….that was not me. I wasn’t a big Johnny Football fan. I felt there were a lot reasons he didn’t get picked until the 22nd pick. I didn’t feel he knew how to run a pro offense; he was too reckless to avoid injury at his small size and he was too brash flashing his money sign.

He also had a long list of personal issues with alcohol and parties including arrests. I wasn’t sure he had learned from them at all.

Well the media wasn’t buying my problems. Remember: Johnny was going to change how football was played! Johnny and the fans bought into this whole thing hook line and sinker. I was willing to give him a chance but didn’t expect much.

Preseason came and went and Brian Hoyer was still the QB, not Johnny. Not yet. The fans, fueled by the media pundits, became increasingly restless to see Johnny as the season went on, especially as the team started to lose.

So it was that in a game after Thanksgiving Johnny came in to replace Brian Hoyer in the 4th quarter and did pretty well, even if there were a few miscues. But the two games he started after that went pretty badly before he got hurt. A dud. Was I right about him? Maybe. Was I happy? No.

After the season, in January, Johnny voluntarily entered a rehab facility for alcohol, something he had struggled with since high school. Around 8 weeks later he emerged and started participating in team activities again.

By this time the media and the fans were now wondering if Johnny even had an NFL career ahead of him at all. My opinion? Well that had changed because something had happened to Johnny: he was now the underdog.

As a member of my Browns, I had always hoped he’d succeed but now I was rooting for him to succeed. He was working hard and trying his best. He was finally trying to “Play Like a Brown.”

Johnny has had some success in the game and a half he has played this season. I don’t know what he will do in the future but I have hope; more hope for him and my Browns than I did a year ago.
So why am I so passionate about the Browns? Well, being part of something bigger than yourself isn’t always just about the result. It’s really the journey on the way and the shared experiences and lessons we learn on it that is what is important and what connects us. Although a championship someday wouldn’t hurt.

Reading Patrick McGovern

This morning’s reading is by poet, author and Benedictine Oblate Kathleen Norris, from her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
Over the years when I worked as an artist in elementary schools, I devised an exercise for the children regarding noise and silence. “I’ll make a deal with you”, I said, “first you get to make noise, and then you’ll make silence.”

The rules for noise were simple: When I raise my hand, I told them, you make all the noise you can while sitting at your desk, using your mouth, hands and feet. The kids’ eyes would grow wide – and the teacher’s as well – so I’d add, the important thing is that when I lower my hand you stop. …

The rules for silence were equally simple. Don’t hold your breath and make funny faces, I learned to say, as this is how third graders typically imagine silence. Just breathe normally and quietly: the only herd thing is to sit so still and make no noise at all. … In every case but one, over many years, I found that children were able to become so still that silence became a presence in the classroom. …

What interests me most about my experiment is the way in which making silence liberated the imagination of many children. Very few wrote with any originality about making noise. Most of their images were cliches, such as “we sound like a herd of elephants.”

But silence was another matter; here, their images often had a depth and maturity that was unlike anything else they wrote. One boy came up with an image of strength as being “as slow and silent as a tree,” another wrote that “silence is me sleeping waiting to wake up.”

“Silence is a tree spreading its branches in the sun.”

In a parochial school one third grader’s poem turned into a prayer: “Silence is spiders spinning their webs, it’s like a silkworm making its silk. Lord help me to know when to be silent.”

And in a tiny town of western North Dakota a little girl offered a gem of spiritual wisdom that I find myself returning to when my life becomes too noisy and distractions overwhelm me: “Silence reminds me to take my soul wherever I go.” (1)

Sermon “Being in Withness,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

A member of the congregation told me a couple days ago that she was shocked to hear me refer to myself last week in worship an introvert. I appear outgoing. I’m talkative. I’m comfortable in groups, even leading groups. I’m up here. It’s understandable why she would be surprised, even confused.

While we think of an introvert as being shy or reticent, in psychology an introvert is one who is a concerned more with his or her own thoughts and feelings than with external things. For those who work in the realm of personality types, especially with systems like the Myers Briggs, introverts are those who find refreshment and renewal alone. We recharge our batteries in solitary self-reflection. That’s the time when we can process and tap into creativity.

For extroverts, processing and creativity happen best when they’re with other people.

Introverts like me can really love the company of others, even flourish in it, but we need regular alone time. And crowds can get pretty overwhelming.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never been a huge sports fan. Being in those crowds…even just seeing them on TV… is overwhelming. I hate the idea of long lines, and traffic jams, but mostly what I don’t like about sporting events is the noise, the tension between the fans of the two teams, and the intensity of rivalry. My brother in law, who is a huge Pittsburg Steelers fan, tells stories of wearing fan gear – jackets and hats and the like – in the territories of competitors and actually being afraid. And this guy was a correctional officer on death row for 25 years. It’s not easy to scare him.

There are still distinct characteristics to the fan bases of different sports: soccer in the US seems to be suburban and white. Basketball seems to be a bigger deal in cities than in suburbs. And NASCAR is huge in the south, way bigger than in the North. Most Californians know absolutely nothing about hockey.

But it’s fascinating to me that so many different kinds of people can come together in support of a team: Stockbrokers and construction workers; lawyers and waitresses; gay and straight and everywhere in between; a rainbow of races and ethnicities.

And yet, despite their differences, fans of teams come together in harmony. Until they don’t.

If a team loses a championship, there’s a pretty good chance the city will erupt in drunken, disappointed violence. If a team wins a championship, there’s a pretty good chance the city will erupt in drunken, enthusiastic violence. My little dog Toulouse is still traumatized by the insanity in San Francisco after the Giants won the World Series.

The lesson I get from professional sports is that we generally can’t really tolerate being together, in all of our diversity, for too long. We’re good at the outward-focusing stuff for a while, but not so good at the self-reflection afterward.

I think Johnny Manziel is a great example: when he was a wunderkind, the new kid in town who was going to revitalize the team and the game, it was easy for fans to get along, sharing the joy of the potential he embodied. But, we tend to turn celebrities into demigods, then discard them like yesterday’s fast food wrappers when they fall off our carefully constructed pedestals, and we discover the frailty of their humanness. Instead of looking inside ourselves, and addressing what it is we need from them, and why we’ve been disappointed, we blame them and move onto the next demigod in line.

When we face the celebrations of winning streaks or disappointments of fallen heroes, we just don’t know what to do with ourselves. As a result, we don’t know what to do with each other. It gets uncomfortable, especially when we haven’t figured out ways to be together in our disagreements.

Either you can’t stand having people around who don’t agree with you, and you’ll get into a fight to preserve your position. Or, you just want to avoid the conflict altogether and stay away. Or worse, you want to get away, but haven’t figured out you want to get away. Or haven’t allowed yourself to get away. And you lash out.

Sports, or more to the point the way we engage with each other in the context of team sports, make visible to me a glaring lack of self refection in our culture that makes it hard to get along. Not just as fans, but across the board, in all of our institutions.

Last June, at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, I attended a workshop called “Habits of Humility: Congregational Teams as Learning Communities.” (2) The three leaders, including Rev. Renee Ruchotzke talked about the ways in which collective humility – a culture in which no one person is the expert, the savior – allows space for each individual and the whole to grow.

They talked about three Viruses that kill humility (3)

The first is Scoring. Scoring is the game we play when we set out to prove that we are the smartest in the room. If I’m playing that game, everything I say, everything I do, is designed and engineered to prove to you that I have all the answers, that I win the race for information and intelligence. It’s the unending stream of information, the constant comments that begin with “just so you know…” that show you I know more than you, and I am the guy who’s going to save this team.

The second virus that kills humility is Sneering. Sneering is an expression of contempt or mocking. It’s the smile, the gesture, the look that says “You don’t get it and I do.” I know Eddie Lacy from Green Bay is way better than Johhny Manziel. I know why that song you’re singing is cultural misappropriation, even if you don’t get it. I see the racism in that comment, which proves to me you are utterly clueless.

And the third virus that kills humility is Shaming, putting another person at fault for all of the woes of the team, by saying things like “you don’t get it,” or “your screw up cost us the playoffs,” or “we would be more successful at attracting new people if you weren’t so weird.” Or aggressive. Or demanding. Or ignorant. Whatever. The point is that if we get into the trap of shaming other people, we never take the time to see our own roles in collective failure.

It seems to me that when Johnny Manziel arrived with the Browns, he had little humility, so it was easy for him to be humiliated as he fell off that pedestal. It forced him into rehab…a period of intense self-reflection. He came out more humble, better able to serve the whole. Sadly, it seems like the rest of the team – the majority of players, coaches and fans – didn’t have the same chance to look inside themselves. They’re still pretty proud of themselves, making for an anxious system, in which they’re still looking for a savior.

Edwin Friedman, a psychologist-turned-rabbi, devoted his whole career to the idea that the most effective leader is one who stays calm in the midst of conflict. He was talking primarily about religious institutions, but they were principles that could relate to any organization, from an NFL Team to a body politic.
As he set out to understand and expose the myriad ways in which organizations are paralyzed by anxiety, he urged leaders to remain calm in the face of conflict.

I’ve read a half dozen of his books, and always closed them at the end, frustrated. Stay calm. It makes sense, but… how?

John Shotter, a professor of interpersonal relations, talks about ‘Withness,’ which he describes as “the kind of thinking we require in dealing with the unique people and problems we meet in our everyday lives.” (4) It’s about putting aside your own agenda for a while and meeting the diversity of humanity and beliefs that we encounter in situations not of our choosing.

For Shotter, being in withness is how to not get anxious; it’s remaining calm and centered, so sure of ourselves that we can listen knowing that we won’t be eliminated or destroyed in situations of conflict or anxiety. Being in withness is being sure that even if we do change our minds our essential selves won’t be changed.

Being in withness is cultivating the power of humility.

A couple weeks ago, I got to be in a workshop with Phillip Lund, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Wisconsin who is promoting the idea of spiritual direction in the context of congregations. The idea is still nascent, so he couldn’t offer any insight into exactly what a program should look like or how it should be developed, but he could share three practices of spiritual direction. It occurred to me those practices go a long way to treat the viruses that kill humility.

Let’s call them practices that promote a culture in which no one person is the expert.

The first practice is being slow. Take lots of time to share and to listen. Don’t rush. Creative types know how impossible it is to rush the process and the mess that can when we do.

The second practice is being silent. Live in the quiet as a shelter for processing. Listen in the silence for the quiet presence of the spirit. If that imagery or theology that doesn’t resonate for you, then think of the silence as a time for the introverts to process, and get themselves ready to share, something that doesn’t always come easily, especially in a diverse group.

The third practice to promote a culture in which no one person is the expert, is being stupid. Now, I know stupidity is not a quality that is prized by UUs, but Lund means stupid in the Buddhist sense: not-knowing, the opposite of scoring. It’s making a habit of asking rather than assuming we know what another person means.

Being slow, silent and stupid are antidotes to the viruses of scoring, sneering and shaming.

Quakers know a lot about these practices. They have a new age practice called Clearness Committees. Actually, they aren’t so new age, having made their appearance on the liberal religious scene in the 1660’s (5) and continuing today. Clearness Committees are assembled by an individual, made up of trusted people in the community, as the individual seeks guidance in making a difficult decision. The convener asks a question, “what should I do about ________.” The group takes as much time as they need to sit in silence and formulate thoughtful questions. The goal is ask earnest questions, that don’t imply blame or lead particular answers. In a Clearness Committee you’d never ask, sneeringly “Why did you do that?” Or, “have you ever thought about this?”

It’s the kind of group dynamic that anybody can benefit from.

Last year, as I talked to a whole bunch of mothers who have children at home, children of any age, and I noticed a common thread. They all expressed feeling a little isolated in a job that can be thankless, where they often judged on their parenting, by an increasingly hostile world that seems to demand more from them every day. It seemed to me that they could benefit from one another’s company in a setting in which they wouldn’t be judged, a setting in which they could support each other and learn from each other, and maybe even help each other find refreshment and renewal.

I’m not a mom. Obviously. So I asked our director of religious education, Halcyon – who is a mom – to start a group. She contacted all the women in the congregation who have children at home, and started the Circle of Mom as a monthly gathering. They make the space and the time what they want. And from what I understand, in a way that is quite organic, they’ve embraced being slow, silent and stupid. What a nice divergence from the ordinary world.

In the last couple of weeks, another group has gathered to read and discuss Angeles Arrien’s book The Four-Fold Way. There’s been a stillness that pervades the circle. The exercises in the book encourage, even require introspection, as the goal of the program is to build competence in each of us to be a warrior, a healer, a teacher and a visionary. All rooted in humility. When we covenanted together, we started with Arrien’s practices of the four ways:

Show up

Pay attention

Tell the truth without blame or judgment

Be open to outcome

When we set out to add more to the covenant, two things came up immediately: don’t rush, and respect the silence.

What this tells me is that we long to have more practices that encourage humility, practices that promote a culture in which no one person is the expert and all are lifted up.

We’re starting to do the hard work here. And that’s good.

So, what are the next steps?

Well, the obvious first step is attending the workshops the Committee on Ministry will be leading on after church on the first Sundays of November, January, March and May. We’ll be looking at our four words – our agreed upon value verbs: Love, Revere, Discover and Connect. This will give us a chance to practice being slow, silent and stupid as we articulate not only how we want to be in the world together, but also why we want to do it.

And I have a proposal. What if we think about having more small groups? Some of them could form to meet in the Small Group Ministry model we started working with a decade ago. AND. Some of them could meet using other models like the ancient practice of Lectio Divina: which is Latin for Sacred Reading. It’s a practice in which a text is selected and read multiple times and reflected on slowly and in stillness. It’s approaching global scripture – in the forms of poetry or other writing from any source – without any preconceived notions, and discovering in it ourselves. The practice is a reminder to take our souls with us wherever we go.

That’s just one idea. Maybe you have more.

Let’s keep talking.

(1) Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books. New York NY. 1998. P. 16-17


(3) Page 8.

(4) John Shotter. The Short Book of “Withness” Thinking. KCCF. 2005.

(5) Parker J. Palmer. “The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach To Discernment in Retreats.” The Center for Courage & Renewal.