Recently I made a promise to the Small Group Ministry team that I would do a sermon on whatever their topic was for the month of November. As you can see, I’m the kind of guy who keeps his promises!
Before delivering on my promise, however, I want to be sure you know what the Small Group Ministry effort is about. The program started eight years ago – it’s main goal is to provide an opportunity for people to meet one another in a more personal way…to connect on a deeper level.
There’s a theological component – but it’s mostly invisible, since our theology is grounded on the idea that one’s faith structure and belief system grows out of personal experience, as opposed to the notion that beliefs are delivered pre-packaged and pre-cooked and you just have to put them in the microwave for two minutes and all the answers will provide your spiritual nourishment for the rest of your life.
We think that’s a half-baked idea. That’s why we have no doctrinal creeds, no statements of belief, as if we could all agree on any particular belief…as if our belief system isn’t organic, a growing process that takes a lifetime, and needs to be unencumbered.
What we do agree on is that part of the theological ingredient in us that asks the big questions, and the questions keep accumulating; there are no final answers; it’s all part of a process.
An important part of that process is the opportunity to talk it through – to say what you think, and to listen to what other people think, to share honestly by reflecting on one’s own experience more than one’s opinions.
To help make these small groups work there is a format that each group promises to follow, consisting of some opening words, the lighting of the chalice, sharing some silence, having time for a personal check in – not about the topic but about what’s happening in your life right now, including ‘the wars that are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone,’ and then the introduction of the topic followed by group discussion with some closing words.
It’s very similar to what happens in this sanctuary on Sunday mornings.
Group members agree to a covenant – promising to ‘make a sincere effort to attend the sessions for a church year, letting the group know if you’re going to be absent, being on time, respecting confidentiality, speak from personal experience but not dominate the conversation – and to listen to others without giving advice.
The covenant is a reminder about the process – it’s not about dictating rules.
There are now 15 Small Ministry Groups, each with about 8 – 10 participants. The SGM topic for November is on Promises.
Have you made any promises lately? Broken any? (I’m not asking for a show of hands!)
The SGM introduction to the this month’s topic says, ‘Promises can define our connections to another, to ourselves and to the universe. Promises are relational and reflect intention: to a child, a lover, a friend or to oneself. A promise is both a statement, implicit or explicit, about “what is,” and a vision of what “can be.” Promises invite predictability, hope, commitment and clarity. How we view promises says a lot about our outlook on the world.’
I’ve been thinking about promises I’ve made in my life, one’s that stand out. I joined the Boy Scouts when I was eleven and I took an oath, a promise, which says:
“On my honor, I will do my best. To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
I remember feeling a sense of the seriousness of those promises – it was an important step for me in the process of growing up. Joining the Boy Scouts was something I did by choice – it wasn’t like going to school, which was required by law, or to church, which was my parents’ decision.
So I took the Boy Scout oath seriously. I remember thinking about the word ‘honor,’ in the opening line: ‘on my honor.’ It had a grown-up feel to it. The word honor was about my sense of dignity and self-respect. I didn’t really have a good grasp on what my duty was to God and country – those sounded like important words, too, but I thought a lot honor, and the line where I promised to ‘help other people at all times and keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.’
The word ‘straight’ has taken on a new meaning since I took that oath back in 1952, but that’s a topic for another time.
At the heart of the process of becoming a person, of developing a sense of self-respect and becoming respectful of others…of developing a sense of personal worth and a sense of dignity…at the heart of that process is the making and keeping of promises.
Humility is also one of the key ingredients to the making of a person, and failing to keep promises is one of the ways we develop a sense of humility.
The SGM program comes with some quotes which the group may or may not use; one of the quotes for this month is a line from Emerson that says, “All promise outruns performance.”
That assertion brought me back to another big promise time – my ordination into our ministry 37 years ago. I made some explicit promises, sort of like the promises I made when I joined the Boy Scouts, but most of the promises I made that night were implicit, unspoken but powerful.
The twenty years of living between the Boy Scout oath and the ordination gave me great pause as I thought about what I was promising; it ‘shivered my timbers,’ as they say.
The Boy Scout Law says that ‘A Scout is:
- and Reverent.’
I guess that summarizes the characteristics you hope to find in a minister, and that those of us in ministry hope to attain.
It’s a tall order I’ve been wrestling with ever since – often feeling a sense of failure to live up to my own standards, much less the sometimes unreasonable standards other people have of me.
Ah, humility! (I’ve accumulated a lot of it, and needless to say, I’m proud of it!)
I made promises when I was first married in 1960, a few weeks before my twentieth birthday – promises in the form of vows we repeated at the home of a Justice of the Peace. I have absolutely no idea what the words were, but I knew very well what the unspoken implicit promises were, and during the next 34 years, raising two wonderful children, and getting five college degrees between the two of us, I had a sense of living out most of what I promised, though sometimes failing (the source of more of that good old-fashioned humility!) and ultimately coming to an agreement to break the promise about ‘ever-after.’
The ending of that marriage felt like a major failure as it relates to the making and keeping of promises.
But we managed to have a ‘good divorce,’ as opposed to the other kind.
One of my more recent promises was made at a death bed; my brand new mother-in-law was dying and we spent some very powerful time together – just the two of us. One day she asked me to make a promise to help raise her only grandchild in the Jewish faith. Lory had made it clear to me that she intended to bring Carlyn up in the Jewish faith, so it seemed like an easy promise to make…so I made it, but I didn’t make it lightly, and during the past fourteen years I’ve thought about that promise a lot.
There’s a religious or theological aspect to the whole idea of making promises.
In the Garden of Eden myth God tells Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He didn’t ask them to make a promise, he simply told them, and of course they disobeyed.
That tree, from the roots to the trunk to the branches is, in fact, the making and breaking of promises.
The knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human. We call ourselves homo-sapiens, which is Latin for ‘wise man,’ or ‘knowing man.’ It’s about our big brains.
Our big brains make us capable of reasoning, which sometimes means coming up with all the reasons why we can’t keep our promises. We can ‘fool some of the people some of the time, but we can fool ourselves all of the time.’
We are social creatures who can create complex social structures, but they all boil down to one simple thing: the making and keeping of promises, of cooperating.
We’re also capable of forgiveness, which helps to make us a religious species.
Robert Frost’s little poem, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, is said to be the most well-known poem in the English language. You know it:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
He paused on his journey home to sense of beauty, the loveliness of the woods during a snow fall – the quiet and the ‘sound of easy wind and downy flake.’
We are human not only because of that big brain of ours, but because we have an esthetic sense…and appreciation for beauty.
We live out our human-ness by the making and keeping of promises: ‘I have promises to keep.’
On the one hand the poet is reminding us that we have an obligation to live up to our word, to keep our promises, to show up on time.
Keeping our promises helps us to create good, caring, meaningful relationships.
But there’s another connotations to Frost’s last line in that delicious little poem – some of our most precious possessions come in the form of promises that we store in the upper-most region of our minds. We keep them, in the sense of holding on to them, in the sense of reminding us who and what is important in our lives, of what gives us a sense of dignity!
One of the Small Group Ministry members said about his experience in his group: “I always feel more connected, not only with my co-members, but, oddly, even with myself.” (Jim Cooper)
We’ll close with familiar lines from the Sufi poet, Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
There is a field
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
Doesn’t make any sense.