Cynthia Roberts has been affiliated with First Unitarian for the past 20 years and formally joined as a member about 10 years ago. She has served on the Spiritual Pathways Team as a teacher and committee member and on Prudential Committee as the liaison to Spiritual Development ministries. Cynthia works as a public health primary prevention strategist and culture change evaluator in multiple spheres of her life. She is continuously working to balance work, family, play, rest, struggle, joy, and beauty.
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It is my sincere pleasure and privilege to be here this morning with you all and to share a little about myself and my journey on my spiritual path. In particular, I will be sharing with you about my weekly practice of participating in an accountability call, and some key reflections on what I have learned, so far, through this practice. As I was inspired to do this practice because of another person’s story, my hope is that some of you may wish to try such a practice, yourselves.
Setting the Stage
I feel compelled to start with a little context.
Back in 1996 I met my husband, Jon Speaker, who grew up in this church, and thus my connection with First U began. My Mother-in-Law, Mona Speaker, is here today and I want to say how grateful I am, to both her and my Father-in-Law, Bob Speaker, for welcoming me to the First U congregation. At the same time I was just back from Peace Corps in Hungary, where I also travelled to Transylvania to work at an environmental summer camp in a village in the mountains outside of Segesvar, the Hungarian name for the medieval city (or Sighisoara in Romanian.) Imagine my surprise when I discovered the connection of Unitarian Universalism and Transylvania. It already began to feel like a type of full circle journey!
At the same time that I met my husband, I was also attending graduate school at Lesley College, studying Intercultural Relations, where I would go to lectures at the Unitarian Church at Harvard Square featuring speakers such as bel hooks and Cornell West. I was in the midst of learning about gender justice, racial justice, taking a Liberation Theology course in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with the Episcopal Divinity School, learning about Liberation Pedagogy at Lesley, and generally getting my mind and heart regularly cracked open and becoming activated. It was a perfect time in my life to discover Unitarian Universalism, as it seemed to hold an answer that I was seeking: how to work on these justice issues with others within a community of people who were aspiring to live into their shared values.
I usually feel compelled to add, when I am talking about my relationship with UUism, that it is not a rejection of my Roman Catholic roots and upbringing, but rather an extension of many of the essential values I learned through my formal Catholic education and through my parents, siblings, and extended families who were Catholic. Indeed, I discovered UUism, with its seven principles and its covenantal basis, as a place where I could practice dearly held values-in-action with other justice-oriented people. And all the better that the family of my future husband was part of this heritage. It pretty much sealed the deal!
Being a Public Health evaluator and professionally evaluating science education reform, youth substance use, state-level tobacco control efforts and now violence prevention, I am trained to focus on context, on place-based change, systems change, culture change, and social determinants of health such as the environment, social connectedness, access to healthcare, the experience of racism, and other social conditions that contribute to our health outcomes. It’s a decades-long multi-disciplinary training that’s basically a perfect storm for being a UU. A place where how I want to be in 360 degrees of my life can flourish.
Additional chronological contextual pieces that are integral to this story are (1) Rev. James Ford being so kind and welcoming to my then 4-year old son, Kai, and inspiring me to become a member of the Church; (2) Dedicating my son to the Church; (3) the critical act of participating in a Chalice Circle for several years, led by Marilyn Eanet; (4) forging strong bonds with Cathy Seggel through her leadership and our shared work on the Spiritual Pathways team; and (5) discovering the magic of Star Island. All of these pieces moved me along in my faith formation to a point where I felt I had a UU identity. I was solidly part of a local congregation, and next I was ready to practice my faith with a more critical consciousness.
Accountability Calls: The Practice
How do we know how successfully we are living our values? This is a perfect “whole life” question for me, as both a professional evaluator and a deeply devoted spiritual seeker.
In what ways do we hold ourselves accountable to that which we value or to that which we aspire in our lives? Knowing that weeks turn into months and years, how do we check ourselves for how fully we are incrementally living into our own truth-in-progress? What do we value? How do we know we are moving in a healthy and growth filled direction, spiritually?
Do we set an app on our phone to regularly ding or gong as a mindfulness check in? Do we keep lists? And check them off? Do we set annual goals? Do we keep a journal and review it periodically?
In many different parts of our lives we have checks and measures. We are advised to participate in annual wellness visits to monitor our health (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other issues that we track over time). We may have fiscal check-ups; we set up savings accounts, 401k plans, budgets, etc. We may have annual work performance reviews with annual growth goals. We may go on vacations or retreats with our beloveds to check in and maintain our primary relationships. But how do we hold ourselves – and possibly each other – accountable for our own spiritual growth? Especially as part of a religious tradition that is not led by dogma but by congregational covenant?
This morning I am going to share with you about a practice I have been doing for about a year and a half – and hope to continue for years to come – that grew out of a lecture and a friendship on Star Island. It starts with a yoga class on Star Island with Laura Beth Brown, a talented Religious Education professional and Director of Family Ministry at Beacon UU Congregation in Summit, New Jersey, who introduced me to the concept of an accountability call and planted a seed for my own practice.
Accountability, understandably, might sound like an imposing word for some of us, but when I first heard about the concept it immediately resonated with me, as accountability has increasingly become a theme in my personal and professional life and a concept that has felt central yet elusive. This kind of weekly practice felt like it would be an opportunity to infuse some discipline and reflection into my daily practice of living life with purpose and meaning.
Being a very process oriented person, and not terribly traditionally goal or outcome focused, the thought of having practice, help, and support around spiritual accountability greatly appealed to me.
My friend from Star Island, Jennie, and I have been doing this practice weekly since January 2018. Every week on Saturday morning we call each other at 7:00 a.m. for a one-hour call. (Sometimes one of us texts at 6:59, “Five minutes?”, at which time I let out the dog, make the coffee, grab my notebook, sharpen my pencils, and sit on my perch in my attic office.
We divide the time by increments of six minutes and take turns answering the following three questions:
First: How is thy spirit? (Check in. How are you doing this week?)
We share about work, friendships, family relationships, joyful observations, disappointments, incremental observations about how our children are becoming who they are…
Second: How have you experienced the divine?
We share about a moment of noticing, something in nature: a sunset, stars, blue sky; an unexpected moment of joy, grace, lightness, the realization of an unfolding knowing…
Third: How is your social justice/self-care going?
We share about our worries about the world in which we are living, the environment, white nationalist terrorism, people we love, especially our brothers and sisters of color and our LGBTQ siblings, about the harm that is caused – or upheld silently – by ourselves and people with the most power and privilege, our own collusion in the systems that we are working to dismantle (systems that far from value the inherent worth and dignity of all people), small actions we are taking with attempts at bravery and integrity, the small signs of our own change…
We share about our worries about the world, the environment, our society, people we love, the harm that is being caused, our own collusion in the problems we face, small actions we are taking with attempts at bravery and integrity, the small wins, the relief, the support, the walks, and naps we try to allow ourselves to take…
To the third question, which was first only specifically about social justice, we added the self-care component as we discovered, through the substance of our calls, that these two elements felt like two sides of the same coin. Social justice as a life practice is long-haul work and an integral part of deep justice work is deep self-care. In fact, for several months, we made an agreement to only report on the self-care aspect of question number three, in order to give it the important space it needed. Simply by deciding to focus our question made us be more mindful, in practice, of how we were caring for ourselves during these especially challenging times.
In Chalice Circle, here at First U, I first began to strengthen the practice of listening deeply without an agenda. [This is something I am still working on and do utterly imperfectly every single day in every single setting. I am a bit impatient, talkative, blabby, excited, want to fix things, want to know things, want to show, relate, connect, excel…]
Listening to witness, not to respond. This is a practice, and the more I do it, the more this skill takes root. It is not something we tend to learn in our society where the quicker one can be with a clever reply, the more highly rewarded we seem to be by the dominant social norms. In this practice, practicing listening means truly listening. Not thinking of your reaction, your judgment, what you would have done, what you would recommend, how you would solve the problem. But listening to witness. Listening to reflect back to the person what you heard them say so that they can more fully understand themselves. More fully live into who they are.
At the end of our call we wrap up with a three minute “give back” where we each summarize for the other person themes that we heard them bring up. We have tended to focus on the pastoral themes of: love and belonging, identity, forgiveness, trust, meaning and purpose, gratitude, hope. [Oh, did I mention? Jennie is at the end of her ordination process to becoming a UU minister!] Despite our different career paths, we’ve been amazingly well matched for this practice. We regularly discover similarities about ourselves that queue us up to be eerily appropriate companions on this journey of self-discovery. One such example is we both read James Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, and once on a shared family camping trip we both launched into the framework not knowing that it was an important one for each of us.
We try to practice flexibility and responsiveness. For example, one week one of us was experiencing a particular issue and wanted to focus exclusively on that issue. In response, we decided to experiment with a mini “clearness committee,” based on Parker Palmer’s work where one person talks and the other person listens then asks clarifying questions, not to propose a solution to the problem, but to help the person learn from accessing their own deep knowing.
So, every Saturday morning, rain or shine, happy or sad, spry or tired, one of us calls the other at 7 a.m. to commence our call. We stick to the one hour format so that it remains a sustainable practice. We have called each other from the US Southwest, Mount Desert Island, Maine, Atlanta, on family visits, work trips, vacations. In the hot weather, in the snow. My traditional spot for taking the call is perched on my window seat of my third floor attic window looking over the Red Maple in my front yard. I see who’s walking their dog, which birds are around, what the weather’s doing. The regular nature of the call and knowing that it will be there next week and the next week and the next makes it easier to be content with only an hour and with only however much we can fit into that call that day.
As we transition between questions, we leave one minute in between for silence. The silence helps us by creating a sacred space where we can just breathe, empty, prepare, make space for what’s next.
As I prepare to end this talk, I can’t help but bring us into the realm of what is happening in the world today. How desperate many of us feel about our present, our future, the environment, politics, our relationships, systems, structures and inequities. In recent weeks since this year’s Faith Development Conference on Star Island I have been sitting with the thought-provoking question posed by Rev. Dr. Leon Dunkley, ethnomusicologist and UU minister in Woodstock, VT, “What would happen if we approached our justice work from a politics of love rather than a politics of division?” And thinking about what we are called to in our own congregational work with Rev. Liz and Rev. Thandeika: to love beyond belief.
Practicing this accountability call gives me a place where I can foster a practice of hope and patience. Hope that within me is the ability to notice and attend to what is important, to live the fullest expression of the good inside of myself. A space to which I know I can return, where wisdom and potential exist. I embody a deeper sense of the possibilities that await and the wonder and goodness that is happening in every moment around us. If we create the opportunity for ourselves – and each other – we discover we have the space to notice, imagine, embody, and co-create the very world we wish to inhabit. This feels like a practice of love.
Thus, I leave with you a call to action. What is your accountability practice? Who in your life would you like to invite into such a space? (You’re worthy, even if sometimes, life me, you fear that you are not.) I know from direct experience and faith that with an accountability practice we can witness ourselves and each other, and perhaps each day, as we live into it, we can change the world.
I would like to end this talk with a poem by Sally Atkins from Picking Clean the Bones
Tell Me, She Said
Tell Me, she said:
What is the story you are telling?
What wild song is singing itself through you?
In the silence between there is music;
In the spaces between there is story.
It is the song you are living now,
It is the story of the place where you are.
It contains the shapes of these old mountains,
The green of the rhododendron leaves.
It is happening right now in your breath,
In your heart beat still
Drumming the deeper rhythm
Beneath your cracking words.
It matters what you did this morning
And last Saturday night
And last year,
Not because you are important
But because you are in it
And it is still moving,
We are all in this story together.
In the silence between there is music;
In the spaces between there is story.
We are listening each other into being.
We search and search and yet find no meaning.
The search for a meaning leads to despair.
And when we are broken the heart finds its
To fly and to feel and to work as it will
Through the darkness and mystery and wild
For this is its freedom, its need and its
There is its magic, its strength and its
To heal and make meaning while we walk or
To give birth to love within our surrender;
To mother our faith, our spirit and
While we stumble in darkness the heart
makes our meaning
And offers it into our life and creation
That we may give meaning to life and
For we only give meaning we do not
The thing we can’t find is the thing we
To make love complete and to honour