Gotta Have Group: Friends Along the Path, 3

Preaching isn’t enough.

Whatever I say from the pulpit on Sunday morning – no matter what wisdom and insight I, or any preacher, might be able to offer – and no matter how much beautiful worship music has opened up your heart to take in the message – that’s not enough. I hope that your worship experience helps, but it isn't enough.

"Paul" (not his real name) was a congregant of mine in a previous congregation. Paul had been a member of his Unitarian Universalist congregation for 30 years. I knew him as cheerful, upbeat, bright, funny, recently retired after a successful career. Then Paul lost his wife. She got cancer. The disease progressed slowly for a year, from all symptomatic evidence, then suddenly progressed quite rapidly and in a week she was dead.

I visited Paul when that loss happened. He was understandably desolate. Of course, he was. No one wouldn’t be. Six months later, he still looked and moved like a stunned man. At the one-year anniversary of his spouse’s death, I visited Paul. Those anniversaries can be tough. For Paul, though, it wasn’t just the anniversary. He’d been in the depths of barely functional devastation continuously.

The work of grieving is unpredictable, and it follows its own schedule. You never know when the tears will want to come. You’ll be in the kitchen and turn around and catch a glimpse of a bowl and suddenly feel slapped in the face or punched in the gut all over again. Yes, significant loss does that -- to any of us. If we’ve been on a spiritual path, if we have had a spiritual practice, have put in time studying wisdom literature, have a practice of journaling, of taking time each day for a period of stillness and silence, have reflected alone and with others on questions of depth, then we done some emotional and spiritual preparation, and we have some resources for rebuilding our life.

Paul, that dear man, for all the beautiful perfection of who he was, didn’t have those resources, didn’t know how to begin to find himself, had scant clue how to start slowly constructing meaning in his landscape of loss. An upstanding and intelligent Unitarian Universalist for 30 years, yet he was utterly unequipped. His congregation failed him. As his minister for more than 5 years at that time, I failed him.

Certainly, most Unitarian Universalists move through the grieving process, the unsteady and irregular rebuilding of life, meaning, and hope without as prolonged total devastation as Paul. But then most unchurched people move through the grieving process more easily than Paul. It made me wonder: What difference is our congregational life making for most of our members?

How can we better nurture each other’s spiritual journeys, better guide one another on that journey toward wholeness, integration, and wise cheer in the face of both triumph and defeat, better foster the compassion and understanding that both flows from and reinforces resilience and self-awareness?

It is obvious what the answer is. It is, in fact, kind of embarrassing to me to realize just how blindingly obvious the answer is. I spent a lot of years studying Plato, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, the American Pragmatists. Then I spent some more years studying the great theologians. No one needs any of that to see the answer to this question. The way to nurture each other’s spiritual journeys is to get together and do it. We have to get together, and we have to get together in small enough groups so that everyone can be heard, so that the group’s members can get to know each other well enough to develop real friendship and deep trust, so that we can speak from our hearts and finally make a regular practice of hearing what our hearts have to say, informed by the hearts of our friends with us on the path.

The way to nurture each other’s spiritual journey is to get together and do it. It’s our mission, the mission of our faith, to do this, and doing it means small groups. Within your group, you might then explore something Plato or Nietzsche or Paul Tillich said about a significant life issue, but first you gotta have the group, and it needs to be a group intentionally oriented toward working on those significant life issues and led by a facilitator there to guide the process along.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Friends Along the Path"
Next: Part 4: The Blizzard and the Rope
Previous: Part 2: Paying More Attention
Beginning: Part 1: Nurturing Perfection

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