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Beacon Press: UU Discussion Guides: Life Lines

Discussion Guide: Life Lines


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Holding On at Both Ends: Lifelines That Connect Us
A Guide to Rediscovering the Shared Meaning of Our Lives

This guide was made possible by a grant from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Guide written by Nancy Palmer Jones

This multiple-session program uses the book Life Lines: Holding On (and Letting Go) by Forrest Church (Beacon Press, 1996) to create conversation and communion as we search for answers to some of life's deepest questions.

Contents

Introduction

How can we make peace with our mortality and the death of those we love? How can we accept things that cannot be changed and change the things that can? How can we forgive ourselves and others? How can we gather the courage to overcome our fears? How can we connect with others to fashion a more just society, a more loving community? ... Where can we find God in what may seem at times a godless world? ... How is it that some people manage to conquer adversity, while others are consumed by it?

Forrest Church

Any one of these questions is enough to bring us to a screeching halt, paralyzed by the enormity of what we do not know. Yet sooner or later some crisis—an illness, the loss of a loved one, a failure—brings each of us face to face with pain so deep that we can only cry out, longing for answers to one or more of these seemingly unanswerable questions. This is our shared destiny: as Forrest puts it, confronted by the "dual reality of being alive and having to die, ... we question what life means." Often, this is what brings us into fellowship in the first place.

A Way In

This guide suggests ways in which workshop leaders and participants can begin to explore some of life's deepest questions, and this very process of exploring in community offers the hope of experiencing some answers. Participants will look at w hat it means to wake up to the fact that everyone must suffer grief and adversity, and together they will begin to discover the many ways—love, humor, and compassion foremost among them—in which this awareness can draw them deeper into the conne ctions that make life worth living. Using the book Life Lines: Holding On (and Letting Go), by Forrest Church (Beacon Press, 1996), as a jumping-off place, participants will have the opportunity to share their own stories and to listen to others' i n a dialogue that joins them to each other and to the human family everywhere.

Two, Four, Eight Sessions or More: A Flexible Design

As every leader knows, each group has its own personality: some groups (and leaders!) appreciate a great deal of structure; others prefer to be more free-form. This guide follows Life Lines' four-part structure, but each "session" here l ists more exercises and suggestions than can be covered in a single meeting of one-and-a-half to two hours. You can choose to spend one meeting or two on each part of the book, creating either a four- or eight-week workshop. You can even condense a nd combine sessions to cover the material in two weeks, if you like. Pick and choose among the exercises suggested here—or bring in your own—so that each meeting creates its own "story" to match the interests and style of you and your gro up.

Similarly, the allotted times for each exercise are simply suggestions; you can expand or abbreviate them as you see fit. And be sure to allow time for the additional questions, thoughts, responses, and readings that participants may bring to each session.

The Gift of Listening and the Covenant of Trust

Groups may vary widely in terms of how well people know each other. Yours may include people new to your group or congregation; it may consist of members who have known each other for a long time; or it may be some combination of the two. It's important to remember that even with people we think we know well, these discussions can bring out thoughts, feelings, or experiences we have never heard before.

Many of us feel shy or nervous about expressing our most heartfelt concerns in a group setting. Yet only when these constraints fall away can we gain a direct experience of the fact that we are not alone, not cut off from each other. This means that when people gather together to talk about life's deepest issues, they must feel safe, and the exercises in this guide are designed to help build such trust gradually.

In fact, these workshops are about the value of compassionate listening as much as about anything else, and from the start, you can help ensure that each individual feels "heard." You will need to model being truly "present" while each member of the group talks. Remind yourself to breathe and listen, receiving and validating what the person is sharing, ensuring that he or she is not interrupted—yet tactfully keeping the group on track in terms of time and topic. And it's particularly important that y ou join in all the exercises alongside other participants.

Begin the workshop by establishing a covenant of trust with your group. Emphasize that everyone should feel free to share only what feels comfortable. Contract with each other that confidentiality will be strictly maintained. And remind participants that their active listening can be their main gift to the group.

Finally, honor the tears that come up. "Tears always come from someplace deep," Forrest says, "and they always matter." Let tears in your group be a "sacrament of love," as Forrest suggests that they were among the ancient Hebrews. But don't forget the he aling sacrament of laughter, too!

A Few More Words About Logistics

Because of the deeply personal nature of this exploration and discussion, you should try to keep the group size small; from four to about a dozen people is probably best. The room should be comfortable, whether you are meeting at a church, in a bookstore, or in someone's home, with flexible seating to allow for the exercises that ask the group to split into twos and threes.

Be sure to allow time at the end of each session for refreshments and socializing.

Before the workshop begins, remind participants that they will need to bring a notebook and a copy of Life Lines. And before the first session, they should read the Introduction and "Part One: Love & Death: Lifelines to the Heart."

Leaders will need a chalkboard, flip chart, or large pad of newsprint for some of the exercises. For later sessions, you may want to have a tape or CD player available.

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Session 1: Opening the Lifelines to Our Hearts

It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey.
—Wendell Berry

What would it mean, if I should wake before I die?
—Forrest Church

This session focuses on

  • getting to know each other
  • beginning to build a sense of trust and community within the group
  • exploring what it means to "wake before [we] die"

Choose from these exercises, with their rough time estimates:

1. Getting Started 2 minutes

As soon as possible after the scheduled starting time, gather the group together and explain that since much of this experience will be about listening, about being "awake" to themselves and each other, you have a brief focusing exercise you'd like th em to try. With eyes closed and both feet on the floor (legs uncrossed), participants should take three or four slow deep breaths, checking for signs of physical tension and releasing it. As they open their eyes, ask them simply to take in where they are, noticing the colors in the room, the shapes of the furniture and decorations, the faces of the others.

2. Introductions 20 minutes

Now give a brief introduction to the series, borrowing from the introduction to this guide or the introduction to Life Lines, or composing one out of your own interests and knowledge of your group. Be sure to include the covenant of trust descr ibed earlier. Then ask members of the group to pair up, preferably with someone they don't know well. If there are an odd number of people in the group, one subgroup can include three. Be sure to include yourself. Ask them to share briefly with each other their name, where they live or what they do, and something else they'd like the group to know; this can include (although it doesn't have to) why they have joined this group and what they hope to learn. Allot just five minutes for this process; halfway t hrough, remind the pairs to switch and let the other person talk.

Have each person introduce his or her partner to the larger group. Each member can add to his or her own introduction when the partner has finished.

3. "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep ..." 15 minutes

Forrest begins Part One with the story of his own nighttime prayers, both as a child and as an adult. Ask participants to write down in their notebooks any prayers they say at night. If they don't pray, ask them to imagine what they might want to ask for or complain about or remember, if they did. The sky's the limit!

Ask for volunteers to share some of what they have written with the group. Are there any common elements to these last thoughts of the day?

4. Making Peace with Life 30 minutes

Forrest describes his grandmother as someone who "had made peace with life." Make a group list of words and phrases that describe what it means to make peace with life. You can start with the qualities Forrest attributes to his grandmother:

  • didn't demand more than life was likely to offer
  • didn't confuse knowledge with wisdom
  • was grateful for enough food and decent weather
  • was flexible about her plans
  • rarely judged
  • took life as it came
  • accepted life as a struggle

Ask participants if they have ever known anyone who, like Forrest's grandmother, seemed to be "at peace with life." Ask them to tell a little of that person's story. Add these qualities to the list.

Finally, ask participants what they would need in order to feel more at peace with the way the world works. Add these qualities to the list.

5. Making Sense of the World 30—45 minutes

Draw an imaginary line along the floor (or you can unroll a ball of yarn or use masking tape). Tell participants that this line represents the spectrum of beliefs about how much control we have over what happens in our lives. At one end is the idea that w e have total control: events in our lives reflect our thoughts, feelings, needs, the way we live from day to day. People at this end of the spectrum feel that our inner state or attitude "creates our own reality"—or they may believe that "everything happens for a reason," offering a specific lesson that the person "needs to learn" at this time. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that the events in our lives are random or chaotic, that we have no control at all. Place a chair in the middle s o that there is no "middle ground," and have participants place themselves along the line based on their beliefs. Emphasize that in this group there is no value judgment attached to any one point of view but rather that the spectrum reflects how much we a ll want to make some sense out of what happens to us. When everyone has found a place, ask each person to speak briefly about his or her position.

6. The Fall into Wakefulness 40—60 minutes

"All of us fail. No life is free from affliction and grief," Forrest says. These two exercises explore how the stories of the great spiritual traditions reflect the stories of our own lives. Participants begin to share their experiences of grief, disi llusionment, and estrangement in order to discover common ground.

a. Stories of Awakenings from the Great Traditions 10—15 minutes

Forrest tells the story of Adam and Eve, and later the story of the Buddha, to describe how we "awaken" to our mortal condition. "Pain and suffering are the keys to wisdom," he says. "This motif appears in many traditions." Have group members retell t hese stories briefly and then discuss what struck them most about the versions included in Life Lines. Ask if any members can cite other traditions in which this motif appears.

b. Our Own Wake-up Calls 30—45 minutes

Forrest goes on to talk about the "fall from Eden" that each of us must experience: "When we are cast from the garden into the wilderness, ... we begin our spiritual journey in earnest.... Cast from the delights of the garden, even from the contentment of semiconsciousness, we fall into the abyss." Teilhard de Chardin put it this way: "When I had to stop my exploration because the path faded beneath my steps, I found a bottomless abyss at my feet, and out of it comes ... arising I know not from where— ;the current which I dare call my life."

Ask participants to divide into groups of three or four. Ask if each will offer, as a gift to the others, some example from his or her own life of a "wake-up call." Perhaps this will be a "big story," such as why they sought out this particular community or church; perhaps it will be a "small" one, as when a chance word or encounter jolts us awake for a moment in the middle of a busy week. Each should tell the story that he or she feels safe telling. Ask the others in each group to offer the speaker the g ift of listening with their full attention.

7. A Life Worth Dying For 20—30 minutes

Forrest lists several people who "lived in such a way that life proved worth dying for": Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Anne Frank. Ask participants whom they would put on this list, from around the world and throughout history.

Forrest goes on to tell the story of his friend Dalton, who gave him "the gift of memory" and "taught me how much courage it takes to love." Ask participants to pair up once again and share a brief story about someone who has given them these gifts—a friend or family member, a former love, a coworker.... Allow some time for each pair to hold these people in their hearts.

You might read the last two paragraphs on page 28 of Life Lines to conclude this exercise.

8. Wrapping Up 5 minutes

"The right happiness for men and women is to eat and drink" is at least part of what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes says. Before you break for refreshments, congratulate the members of your group on their courage and generosity; thank them for offering thei r thoughts and stories. Remind them to read Part Two in Life Lines for your next meeting.

And conclude with the same exercise with which you began: take a moment to breathe deeply, with your eyes closed and body relaxed. Invite your five senses to awaken: what do you hear as you breathe in and out (your breath, your heart, noises from outside? )? What do you feel (the texture of your clothes, the temperature in the room?)? What do you smell (food, coffee?)? What do you taste (anticipation?)? And finally, open your eyes. What do you see?

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Session 2: Finding the Lifelines to Forgiveness

When we walk toward our pain, not away from it, we walk hand in hand with others, hesitant sometimes but no longer fearful, for love is strong, strong enough to cast fear from our hearts.
—Forrest Church

Perhaps everything terrible really, in its deepest being, is something helpless that wants help from us.
—Rainer Maria Rilke

This session focuses on

  • deepening a sense of community through sharing our stories
  • identifying the ways in which we judge others and ourselves
  • uncovering unexpected sources of wisdom and joy
  • discovering ways to get past guilt and fear

Choose from these exercises and topics for discussion:

1. Waking Up 2 minutes

If your group enjoys developing a little bit of "ritual," start with the same exercise with which the last session ended: Close your eyes and encourage yourself to relax. Then bring your full attention to each of your five senses: smelling, tasting, h earing, touching, and, as you open your eyes, seeing. Issue an invitation to yourself to "show up"!

2. Checking In 5—10 minutes

Ask participants to pair up, choosing a partner with whom they did not work last week (if possible). Remind them of the story with which Part Two in Life Lines ends: Forrest's friend learned to ask, "Are you okay?" when he really wanted the truth a bout how someone was feeling that day. Have participants ask each other, "Are you okay?" (or whatever works for them), and practice listening with empathy to the honest response.

3. How Good (or Bad) Are We? 15 minutes

Try another "spectrum" exercise: Draw an imaginary line on the floor and block out the middle position with a chair or piece of paper. At one end of the spectrum is the idea that humans are basically good until tainted by society; at the other is the beli ef that we are intrinsically bad but capable of redemption (or "self-improvement"!). Have participants take a place on the line that reflects what they believe, and then ask each to speak briefly about what has brought them to this position.

4. Guilty or Not Guilty? 45—60 minutes

In Part One of Life Lines, Forrest suggests that the Adam and Eve story "introduces the question of blame" and, in turn, guilt and victimization. In Part Two, he describes how "when things go wrong, even things that can't be helped, [we] reason tha t it must be either [our] own fault or someone else's." This series of exercises encourages participants to identify, and question, the "crimes" of which they regularly convict themselves and others.

a. Constructing Our Own Prisons 15 minutes

"We can be imprisoned by an unnecessarily guilty conscience," says Forrest, "turning a lifetime, even a week's worth, of petty evidence against ourselves into a constitutional felony."

Hand out a couple of large pieces of blank newsprint to each participant, along with a handful of crayons or markers. Ask them to make a quick sketch of the "prison" we all construct for ourselves. (Emphasize that stick figures are good! This is not abou t being an artist!) Then label each bar of their prison cell with the "crimes" they have committed in the past week, or month, or year. What actions do they feel guilty about? For what thoughts or behaviors, failures or oversights, have they criticized th emselves? (If they really don't want to draw, they can also use their notebooks to jot down a quick list of these "crimes.")

When everyone has identified at least a few of these, ask participants to call out examples so that you can construct a group list. Are there common areas of self-criticism? Do other people's lists remind you of things you forgot to include?

b. Zero Tolerance 15—20 minutes

Ask participants to work in groups of three or four to identify the faults, behaviors, or beliefs for which they have no tolerance in others. Acting as a jury, for what crimes would they deliver a resounding verdict of "guilty"? Encourage them to conside r not only the big issues, such as bigotry and hate crimes, but also the smaller transgressions—rudeness, cutting you off on the freeway.... Are they able to arrive at unanimous verdicts?

Ask for contributions from these discussions to form a second group list. Discuss the differences and similarities between the two lists.

c. Amnesty 15—20 minutes

Which of the crimes and transgressions on both lists might be eligible for a revised verdict of "not guilty by reason of humanity"? Discuss at least a few of them in detail—why or why not would participants be willing to let themselves or others off the hook?

5. What's Good About "Being Bad"? 15—20 minutes

"Any spiritual discipline worth the name is powered in part by justifiable guilt over the way we treat others," Forrest says. How does this relate to participants' own spiritual discipline? To Unitarian Universalism and the life of your community in p articular? Ask participants, "What good things has your guilty conscience led you to do, both privately and communally?" Invite stories of concrete examples.

6. A Fresh Way to Look at False Accusation 20—25 minutes

Forrest tells a great story about being angered by a false accusation and then hearing from his son that "there's usually at least some truth on both sides." Ask participants to list in their notebooks recent experiences in which they've been falsely accu sed—by a spouse, a child, a boss, a parent, a stranger. Then ask them to look at these incidents anew—is there any truth to these accusations, even if not in the specific instance? Invite participants to share any insights that arise from this e xercise.

And it might be even more fun to invite them to tell stories similar to Forrest's: when have participants received life instruction from an unexpected source—a child, a stranger, an "enemy"? When have they heard something that resounded like a gong a nd set them thinking about themselves or their life in a new way?

7. The Pursuit of Happiness 40—55 minutes

a. If Your Dreams Came True 10 minutes

Ask participants to list in their notebooks the answer to the classic fairy-tale question: If you were granted three wishes that would make you really happy, what would they be? Invite participants to follow their impulses: their list may include lifelong goals or accomplishments that would make them happy, or it may consist of spur-of-the-moment desires (food? a vacation?). Suggest that they make several lists, if they like.

b. Resources Within and Without 10—15 minutes

On the chalkboard, flip chart, or newsprint, draw a large circle. Ask participants to name their "inner resources"—all the qualities they have, or could develop, that would help them to achieve their wishes. Invite them to include here all the things they value about individualism. Write these qualities inside the circle.

Then ask them to offer ideas about "outside" resources. For what qualities or assistance do they have to turn outward? And what are the sources of those qualities (God, family, friends ...)?

c. The Happenstance of Happiness 20—30 minutes

Forrest reminds us that the "root of our word happiness is ëhap,' or chance. We hap upon, or chance to encounter, things that give us pleasure." Ask participants to gather in pairs or groups of three and to tell each other stories from the past week of their own chance encounters with happiness or pleasure. Remind them to listen to each other wholeheartedly. Then reconvene the group and ask each person to retell one of the favorite stories he or she has just heard from someone else. Let the original teller feed in more details, as desired. And leave time at the end of this exercise for more stories to come up!

8. Uncovering the Roots of Despair 30—45 minutes

Most of us are familiar with the serenity prayer quoted in Life Lines on page 63. But how do we identify the things we can change and those we cannot? There are several "ways in" to experiencing some answers; you may choose to use one or more of th ese. It might be a good idea to take a moment to do the "focusing" exercise—asking the group to breathe and relax, opening their senses—before you turn to what follows. Remind the group that these are big questions, and we're not looking for "fi nal" answers, if there even is such a thing—just for whatever experience, large or small, this moment may offer.

a. "Free Writing" 20 minutes

"In one respect, all of us are victims," Forrest suggests. Ask participants to write freely for twenty minutes about any areas in their lives in which they feel like a victim. They are writing only for themselves, and there is no "wrong" way to do thi s. Perhaps what will come up will be griefs or disappointments that they bear from childhood, or perhaps they will think of more recent disillusionments, losses, resentments, or hatreds. They are looking for any areas in which they feel "stuck" or burdene d, any areas that seem dark. Ask them to try to shine the light of imagination on these areas: does something encourage them to hold onto these burdens? Are they afraid of losing something if they set these burdens down? Remind them to be gentle with them selves as they try to identify their fears.

b. Guided Meditation 10—15 minutes

Alternatively, you can ask participants to enter these areas through images instead of words. Ask them to close their eyes and begin to breathe and relax, as in the focusing exercise, identifying and releasing any areas of physical tension. Then ask t hem to imagine themselves in the midst of a safe and beautiful environment. Give them time to picture all the details of what's around them. Then ask them to imagine that they are in this environment loaded down with luggage of every sort. Have them pictu re this luggage in detail and invite them to sense where they might have picked it up and how long they might have been carrying it. Do they know what's inside each piece? Remind them to keep breathing. Suggest that they're really tired of carrying all th is luggage and that they'd like to let go of as much of it as possible so that they feel freer to explore the landscape in which they find themselves. Which pieces can they set down? Which pieces do they need to keep with them? What feelings come up when they think about releasing some of these burdens? They don't have to do anything about any of this—just notice how it feels.

Bring them back to noticing the imaginary landscape around them, and then back to breathing and noticing the room in which you're gathered as you complete the meditation.

c. "Love Casts Out Fear" 15 minutes

Sometimes just saying out loud what we are afraid of helps to diffuse the fear. Ask participants to find a partner and share with him or her something about what they've "seen" from either or both of the two preceding exercises. Encourage participants to take their time as they try to name their experience, which may be mostly an ongoing sense of "stuckness" or of having "drawn a blank." Ask the listener in each pair to practice empathy; remind the group of the definition of consoling (being "one with oth ers in their aloneness") and of commiserating ("sharing their misery"). Offer each other the gift of being heard. Halfway through the allotted time, remind the pairs to switch and let the other person talk.

9. When Our Weakness Is Our Strength 20—25 minutes

Part Two of Life Lines offers many suggestions about ways to get past guilt and fear, most of them full of paradox. You may want to lead a free-form discussion on the paradoxes Forrest mentions, from Jesus' teachings to the words of Paul from his p rison cell (pages 71—72) and those of Martin Luther (page 87). Invite participants to tell their own parables of paradox—moments when a weakness or failure turned out to be their strength or salvation.

Forrest also mentions the liberating forces of apology and humility. Yet here's a paradox: when do these liberating experiences slip over into the binding force of self-blame and the pride of feeling fully responsible? Expand the discussion to include exa mples from participants' lives. Do they have these feelings and experiences in common?

10. "Uniting Our Hearts in the Spirit of Prayer"

5 minutes

Forrest suggests that through prayer, "we are asking our deepest, truest voice to make itself heard." And almost every spiritual tradition holds that the practice of meditation or prayer is more powerful when a group practices together. Invite participant s to spend a few minutes now inviting their "truest voice" to speak to and for them in the silence. Read the last two paragraphs on page 97, and invite them to use the words of this prayer as they hold their "enemies," and their loved ones, in their heart s and minds.

Before you break for refreshments, ask participants to practice forgiveness, of themselves and of others, in the coming week—to practice letting go. Remind them to read Part Three in Life Lines for the next meeting.

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Session 3: Discovering Lifelines to God and Each Other

If none of this makes sense, it does make something more important than sense. It makes us humble. And it makes us wonder. It helps us empathize with others as mysteriously born and as fated to die as we are.... It humbles us, and we are changed.
—Forrest Church

If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is,
or what "God's fragrance" means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.
      Like this.
—Rumi (tr. Coleman Barks)

This session focuses on:

  • discovering ways in to compassion and humility
  • exploring ways to talk about God
  • sharing stories of suffering and survival
  • finding ways to connect with our neighbors

Choose from these exercises and adapt them, as needed, for your group:

1. Opening the Pathways to Our Minds and Hearts 3 minutes

Ask the group to participate in the focusing exercise from previous weeks, breathing and relaxing, and then taking a moment to zero in on each of the senses. This time, as they open their eyes, ask them to greet their neighbors, trying consciously to open their minds and hearts to the thoughts and feelings they will hear during this session.

2. Reconnecting 10—15 minutes

Ask participants to pair up and ask each other, "Are you okay?" or "What are you going through?" Remind them of the last session's suggestion that they practice forgiveness and letting go during the past week; invite them to share stories of these exp eriences, large or small. After a few minutes, remind them to switch and let the other person speak.

Reconvene the group as a whole and ask if some participants would like to share one of their stories. Did they remember to practice forgiveness? Did they find it any easier after the last meeting? What were their experiences with "letting go"?

3. When the Dragon Slays Us 20—30 minutes

In John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Christian faces Apollyon, the dragon of pride, in the Valley of Humiliation. "The ultimate dragon," Joseph Campbell said, "is within you." In Part Three of Life Lines, Forrest lists three ways that pr ide can get us into trouble:

  • "when we try to explain to ourselves or to others what cannot be understood"
  • "when we imagine that nothing exists beyond that which we can ... understand and explain"
  • "when we allow what little we know to get in the way of our relationship with our neighbors"

Ask participants to gather in groups of three or four and share stories of the times when they've been absolutely sure they "knew what was right." These stories may go back to childhood or young adulthood; we've all clutched fiercely at some bit of knowle dge or misinformation, only to have these "solid" constructs come tumbling down when a broader view or a new piece of information shakes our world. Perhaps some will have stories of more recent times when their certainty has been set on its ear; these sto ries may involve unexpected teachers, such as children, strangers, and "enemies." Let each participant have the chance to give one or two examples.

When everyone comes back together, ask each group to share some of its funniest or most heart-rending stories.

4. "God Is Not God's Name" 30—45 minutes

a. A Brief—and Personal—History of God15 minutes

One of the kindergarten teachers at the Unitarian Church of All Souls once heard a five-year-old say, "I used to believe that God was [such and such], but now I know that God is ..." At age five, this young theologian already had a sense of her own re ligious history! Ask participants to write in their notebooks a brief history of their own beliefs about God. What did they believe as children? As teenagers? Young adults? What do they believe now? What does God do; what is God capable of? Ask them to us e Forrest's technique of beginning to define God by what God isn't or doesn't do (see the paragraph that begins on the bottom of page 107), if that helps. Encourage them to write freely and quickly, jotting down any thoughts or phrases that come up.

b. Developing a Language for Speaking of God 15—30 minutes

Make a group list of these thoughts about God. How do these thoughts compare to Forrest's summing up: "God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each, a mystery that cannot be named or known"? And—since Job will figure in exercises that follow, why not throw open the door here?—how does your list compare to the images of God presented by the story of Job?

5. From out of the Whirlwind 10—15 minutes

"I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know," Job cries when he comes face to face with "God's cosmic greatness." "The affirmation of humility," writes Forrest, "as a rightful response to the mystery of the creation, does bring Job closer to God." Perhaps this is partly what Theodore Roethke meant when he said, "In a dark time the eye begins to see."

Ask participants to pair up and describe to each other a moment in their life when they experienced something of this "cosmic greatness." Perhaps these stories will feature a force of nature that gave the person a sense of his or her "rightful status in t he scheme of the creation"; perhaps they will focus on some human tragedy, personal or historical, that made clear what is beyond our control; perhaps they will offer some glimpse of the inscrutable that was small but nonetheless life changing. Take a mom ent to be quiet together before you begin, reminding participants to offer the gift of listening with an open heart. And don't forget to switch storytellers halfway through the allotted time.

6. When the Boom Falls 15 minutes

Where do we turn when the boom falls in our life? Ask participants to call out all the responses they can think of, from their own lives or others'. Do they retreat into isolation? To what sources of knowledge or wisdom do they turn? What offers comfo rt? Do they find it in companionship? In reading? In some other activity? Which ones? Forrest points out some problems he has with New Age approaches, as well as some of its wisdom. Do participants find New Age sources helpful? Do they turn to more tradit ional scriptures? Emphasize that there is no judgment here; the goal is simply to get a sense of the range of responses called forth by the experiences that overwhelm us.

7. A Recipe for Compassion 20—30 minutes

Job describes how he would comfort a friend in need: "I would speak words of encouragement, and then my condolences would flow in streams." In the next two exercises, participants identify the ways in which they would like to be consoled and to consol e.

a. Rewriting the Story 10—15 minutes

Ask participants to hold in their minds a time when they needed friends or family members to console ("be with them in their aloneness") or commiserate ("share in their misery"). Invite them now to write a letter in their notebooks to someone from who m they have wanted consolation, telling this person exactly how they would like to be comforted. This letter is just for them, and they can ask for whatever they need. Alternatively, they can write a letter of gratitude to someone who did offer consolatio n when they needed it; as they offer thanks, ask them to name the specific behaviors and words that helped them. Or they can write a letter to a person to whom they would like to offer consolation; perhaps there are words or ways of listening that they ca n offer now that they could not find at the time. This is their chance to rewrite the story.

b. Finding New Ways to "Be With" 10—15 minutes

So often we avoid people in pain, as Forrest points out, frustrated by "our inability to fix things" and certain that we will do or say the wrong thing. But perhaps the preceding exercise has helped participants to discover new ways to respond to thos e who are suffering. Ask them to share whatever insights they wish. You might begin with the way Walt Whitman put it: "I never ask a wounded person how he feels; I myself become the wounded person."

8. The Social Virtue of Humility 15—20 minutes

"Share with seven—yes, with eight," the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes. There are many wonderful stories of people making compassionate connections in Part Three of Life Lines (my own favorites include the story of the Jewish sisters in Udi ne and that of the Israeli language school, which ends, "What's ëaround'?"). Ask participants to retell their favorites and to share others of their own. What is the "common enemy" that unites people in each of these stories? What "larger enemies" ca n you identify in your community? Brainstorm a list of what could unite all the groups in your community.

9. Planning a Unification Workshop or Retreat 30 minutes

Ask participants to gather in groups of three or four and decide which "tribes" they would like to focus on bringing together: men and women; people from different faiths, different races or ethnicities, or different neighborhoods; parents and childre n; the old and the young. How would you begin to learn about each other? What questions would you ask? What stories would you want to hear? (Laurens van der Post has called story "the most precious container of the spirit.") Brainstorm ideas for a worksho p, retreat, or other shared activity. You might use the list of "larger enemies" compiled in the preceding exercise as a means of bringing people together.

Reconvene the group as a whole and share your ideas. Notice which ones generate the most excitement or enthusiasm, and spend some time developing them further. What steps can you take to make them happen?

10. A Vision of Each Other's Lives 15—20 minutes

For the closing exercise, ask participants to stand and use the focusing techniques once again, breathing deeply, relaxing, and turning their attention to each of their senses. As they open their eyes, ask them to begin walking slowly around the room, noticing where they are and occasionally making eye contact with each other. Then ask them to pause and find a partner who stands nearby. Have the partners hold hands and look into each other's eyes. Invite them to take in the whole of this person. Imagi ne him or her as a brand-new baby, just entering this world; as a child, learning, exploring, suffering early disappointments, finding early joys; as a young adult, discovering sexuality, searching for a life path. Now look at this person and imagine him or her near the end of this life. Embrace the fact that he or she must one day die, leaving behind all those who love and are loved by him or her. Take a moment to honor the life before you, with a gesture that shows your love and respect.

Ask participants to walk again, softening their focus, breathing, relaxing. Then pause and find another partner. This time, as you look into the other person's eyes, recognize that he or she bears all the sorrows of this world, all the tragedies and terro rs—the divisiveness of bigotry, the unfathomable cruelties of Bosnia and the Holocaust, the devastation of personal losses and separations. Take a moment to acknowledge the breathtaking courage and largeness of heart of this person, who bears all thi s pain and yet survives, who is present here and now before you. Find some gesture with which to honor the courage and inspiration that this person offers you.

Once more ask participants to walk around the room. Ask them to turn their thoughts to all those for whom they would pray, holding these people in their hearts and minds as they move in this room, with this group. To end the exercise, ask everyone to paus e and breathe together.

11. For Next Week 3 minutes

Before you break for refreshments, invite participants to use the techniques they have just practiced as they move through their lives in the coming week. Ask them to look even at strangers in this way, to try imagining them as babies or as the very o ld, to picture their joys and sorrows. When we do this, the people around us suddenly become more than just "moving scenery," and we gain a sense of connection to the larger human family.

Invite participants to practice compassion consciously in the week ahead, to take the opportunity to console and to listen to those around them.

Finally, remind them to read Part Four in Life Lines and ask them to bring in songs, poems, readings, and prayers to share. (Look, for example, at the Quaker hymn "My Life Flows on in Endless Song.") If you have a tape or CD player, a piano (and p iano player!), let participants know that these will be available.

Session 4: Connecting Our Lifelines to Hope

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.
—James Baldwin

Having spent billions of years in gestation, present in all that preceded us—fully admitting the pain and difficulty involved in actually being alive, able to feel and suffer, grieve and die—we can only respond in one way: with awe and gratitude.
—Forrest Church

This session focuses on:

  • honoring the people and things that connect us to our truest selves
  • sharing stories of the miraculous in the everyday
  • strengthening our connections to the community we've formed
  • concluding the workshop with a sense of grace

Choose from these exercises, allowing plenty of time for free-form discussion and sharing:

1. Focusing and Remembering 5 minutes

The poet W. S. Merwin wrote, "I say to my breath once again, little breath come from in front of me, go away behind me, row me quietly now, as far as you can, for I am an abyss that I am trying to cross." As participants breathe and relax, quieting th eir minds and opening their hearts, ask them to remember the people with whom they have connected in the past week—friends, family, and strangers alike. Ask them to hold an image of each of these people in their minds. Now ask them to remember all th ose whom they have lost, whether through death or separation, disagreement or distance, and to speak their names quietly aloud. Finally, ask them to remember that all "those who have come before us must now use our hands to touch, our eyes to see." Invite them to hold all of these people in their hearts and minds throughout this session.

2. Recounting Stories from the Week 10—15 minutes

Ask participants if they have any stories of forgiveness or compassion, insight or connection, that they would like to share from the week just past.

3. Home Is Where the Heart Is 10 minutes

Ask participants to list briefly in their notebooks every place that they have considered "home." Where is home now? What makes a place their home? Suggest that they write quickly and freely, jotting down whatever thoughts and images arise.

4. Sweet Mysteries 20—30 minutes

In Part Four, Forrest describes several different kinds of miracles, from the visitation the young woman received just before she heard that her grandmother had died, to her tears of grief, to our amazing capacity to love, even though "love is so hard ," to the unimaginable (before birth) miracle of life itself. Invite participants to gather in groups of three or four and share their own miraculous experiences, large or small: moments of awakening to the depth of mystery that can permeate the everyday; amazing synchronicities, visitations, or connections to something that seems "beyond"; and (far from the least of these) those times when they have allowed themselves to love fully and well.

Ask them to consider, too, all the unexpected aspects of life. Read aloud the last paragraph on page 163 of Life Lines. What else do they find amazing and miraculous about being on this earth, in this life?

Reconvene and ask the groups to share some of their favorite stories.

5. Looking for the Light 20—30 minutes

a. "Sometimes We Abandon the Search" 10—15 minutes

Invite participants to share stories of their own search for the light of truth and faith. Through which windows in the cathedral of the world have they looked? And when have they felt overwhelmed or confused—when have they lost the light complet ely or abandoned the search? Ask them to make a gift of their stories of being lost in the dark.

b. Where the Grass Is Green 10—15 minutes

"Often, just where you'd think the grass would be dying, it is green," Forrest says. And he goes on, "None of us can avoid adversity, loss, or failure, but we can choose how we will respond." He tells several stories of people discovering strength, hope, and love in the midst of loss. Invite participants to share similar stories, the ones that have inspired them or offered a light in the midst of darkness.

6. Naming Our Personal Lifelines 30—40 minutes

a. Naming Our Limits, Naming What Is

10 minutes

When we are forced "to work within tightly drawn and well-defined limits," Forrest says, "everything within those limits is heightened." Ask participants to make a quick list in their notebooks of everything that limits them. Ask them to write freely about the conditions of their lives, without pausing to worry or think too much, trying simply to name what is, allowing whatever comes up to flow onto the page.

b. "Let Me Look About Me" 20—30 minutes

"I am fallen into the hands of publicans and sequestrators, and they have taken all from me; what now?" Jeremy Taylor said. "Let me look about me. They have left me the sun and moon, fire and water, a loving wife, and many friends to pity me and some to relieve me." Deena Metzger, in Writing for Your Life, offers a wonderful exercise called the "Dream Police." Ask participants to imagine that in fifteen minutes, the "dream police" will arrive and take from them everything that they have not wri tten down. (Those with active imaginations may need to be reassured at this point: "The dream police are not really coming!") Writing as fast as you can, list everything that you want to save, everything that makes you you—people, memories, belonging s, places, aspects of nature—the possibilities are endless. There's just one stipulation: name specific things, rather than general ones—not "trees" but "the magnolia tree in front of my friend Abby's house"; not "my family" but "Mom, Dad, Jane, Ira, Doug, Deb," and so on. Remind participants that they can choose to leave things out that they don't need! And emphasize that there is absolutely no wrong way to do this; for every single person, a different set of things will leap to mind, and each person's list will vary every time he or she does the exercise.

When you have all written freely for fifteen minutes, ask participants to read their lists aloud. Did anything take them by surprise? Do they want to add something from someone else's list to their own?

7. Thoughtful Wishing 15—20 minutes

On page 161, Forrest offers a list of things we might wish for—thoughtful wishes for "what can be ours, what we can do, who we can be." Read his list aloud, and then ask participants to write their own list in their notebooks. After they have wri tten for ten minutes, invite them to share this list with a partner. Then ask each person to share with the group something that he or she learned from witnessing the other's list.

8. Carrying Forward 30—40 minutes

"It's not the great things you do that matter," Mother Teresa said, "but the small things you do with great heart." Ask the group if they would like to honor their experience in this workshop by carrying it forward in some way. Perhaps they would like to plan a worship service or retreat that springs from the thoughts, feelings, and stories shared here. Or perhaps there is some community activity to which they'd like to dedicate some time and energy. Brainstorm ways to continue to live what they have discovered in these past weeks.

9. Gifts to Carry Away 40—50 minutes

Invite participants to share the readings, poems, prayers, and songs that they have brought with them. "I pray and I sing and sometimes my prayer is my singing," says Bobby McFerrin. Be sure to open the conversation to include any thoughts participant s have about what they have gained from this workshop.

10. Completing the Circle 5 minutes

"On beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field," wrote the Sufi poet Rumi. "I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about." To conclude, ask the group to stand in a circle and hold hands. Invite them to hold in their hearts any others whom they would like to include in this circle. Then you might say something like this: "Here we are, you and I, in this room, on this planet, in this life. These are our lifelines—those of us gat hered here, those we hold in our hearts, and others whom we have yet to meet—connected hand to hand and heart to heart. Thank you for the gifts of your stories, of your listening, of your presence. Let us, as Forrest suggests, just ëstop for a moment and look.'" And allow a moment or two to enjoy this communion in the silence.

Then, in the spirit of Ecclesiastes 5:17—18, may there be more eating and drinking, laughter and singing as you move forward into your work together.

Nancy Palmer Jones is a member of All Souls, New York City and is a teacher in its religious education program. A writer, editor, actress, and singer, she leads creative workshops and is beginning to prepare for the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

 
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