Come we now all together.
We bring, unilluminated, our dark caves of doubting;
We seek, unbedazzled, the clear light of understanding.
May the sparks of our joining kindle our resolve,
Brighten our spirits, reflect our love,
and unshadow our days.

Writing this sermon put me somewhere deep into my dark cave of doubting. Over the past few weeks, I have found myself paralyzed by a familiar feeling that I am not doing it right.

Specifically, in writing multiple drafts of this sermon, I could easily point to the myriad of
Imperfections and the ways that I was not expressing all that I wanted as I had imagined.
Doubt has enveloped me in coming to this place, and now here I am,
Seeking the light of understanding in community.
It is the very act of coming here with you in this state of vulnerability and imperfection that I am
able to kindle my resolve, reflect my love, and unshadow my days. As a community, we lift each
other out of darkness as individuals. I am going to cast my imperfect words out to you and you
will catch them, and knit them into whatever fabric you need for the day.
Again and again, we willingly enter into darkness together as a community,
knowing that the light on the other side will be brighter and richer because
we have traveled together.

Raise your hand if you know this reference from the title of this worship service?
“Have fun storming the castle!”
It comes from the movie, The Princess Bride.
Right before the climax of the story, the small group of heroes are setting off to literally storm a castle. The next lines are something like, “Do you think it will work?” “It would take a miracle.” It seems an impossible task and yet of course they succeed.

The “have fun” part of the storming the castle is what strikes me and plays in my mind sometimes when things are hard. When facing a challenge - particularly one that seems insurmountable - it rarely seems fun. I am not sure that The Princess Bride intended me to take insights from this part of the movie -- other parts, certainly -- but the idea that a small group working together to achieve a difficult task could have fun is an important message to me. Facing challenges in community can lead to some of the most rewarding and profound growth -- both individually and as a group.

The quote from The Princess Bride also sticks out in my mind because of the word “storming.” It is a word that is used in group development theory -- a framework that I find extremely useful in my work in communities and groups -- in fact, in my life in general. The idea is that when a group comes together, they go through stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing as they get to know each other, figure out how to work together, and hopefully accomplish a task (or many) together.

It is commonly believed that a community is only really formed when it struggles through a challenge. It is only really when a group has made it through hard times that they coalesce. This is surprising, since most of us spend our lives trying to avoid struggle.

I am pretty sure that few of you chose to be a part of USNF in order to weather challenges together. Did any of you?

Yet as a community we learn and grow profoundly when we embark on a challenge together. As UUs, we are lucky to have 2 principles that remind us that we do not have to have it all figured out and we get to explore together. I am going to share the 3rd and 4thprinciples in kid language -- which I am most used to -- as they are particularly insightful:

3rd Principle:

We believe that we should accept one another and keep on learning together.

Can you think of times you have applied this principle?

4th Principle:

 We believe that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.

When do you search for truth and what is right? Do you do it in isolation or with others? What has inspired you to explore these topics?

There is a commitment here to learn together. We get to decide what is true and how we are going to accept one another. The principles do not instruct us to believe, but to search, to question, to seek. We are a community engaged in the act of thinking critically about who we are, about the world, and about our roles in it. I think that these acts of exploration are incredibly rich when we do them together.

The process of becoming a community has a lot to offer our curious selves. I wanted to give you a framework to help you think about what you have gained from your involvement in community. You might want to think about your personal experience joining a group -- perhaps joining USNF or taking part in a committee or a group at work. I am going to explain it from what I observed working for an AmeriCorps program where 24 22 year olds lived together in a cabin for 10 months doing community. I will also use Buddy and the bunnies for help. Oh, and experiences from this past year at USNF.

The forming stage is often very exciting and actually fun. You are excited to meet new people and embark on something new together. Everyone is generally on their best behavior and are working hard to follow the rules or expectations of the group. I saw this in the first few weeks of the AmeriCorps program every year. Everyone is so cool and awesome and nice! It is so fun to get to share stories and explore together.

The next stage is the storming stage! This is when people start to be themselves more, different personalities and working styles come out and conflict arises. It would be impossible for a group of people to get along perfectly -- people communicate in different ways, lead in different ways, have different needs and goals. We are all imperfect beings, with a lot to learn!

The storming is pretty clear in our story when Buddy’s desire to eat the bunnies conflicts with the bunnies desire to live. At the AmeriCorps program, hints of storming would happen as soon as the group had their first community meeting. I imagine you can all relate. At meetings, there are people who like to talk a lot, there are people who will not say anything, there are people who want to carefully sort through each agenda item and there are those who want to get out of the meeting as quickly as possible.

Storming can be scary -- it is easy to think that this just isn’t going to work. How in the world can 24 people agree on how they want to live? How in the world can 200+ members of a congregation agree on anything?

This storming is in my opinion the richest part of group building if it is greeted with acceptance. That is right -- I am suggesting that you appreciate those hard meetings or the deeper conflicts. The stage that it leads to is norming -- figuring out how to work together; to get to know each other more deeply and honestly; and really learn how to deal with challenges. Without a commitment to the group and to the process of norming, storming can be a breaking point. With a commitment, it can lead to rich growth and learning for everyone.

“I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.”

It is the simple decision to weather the storm that changes a group drastically -- and changes our lives. When we acknowledge that working together can be hard and that we want to figure out how to do it, we commit to the work, to the community, to growth. I am not so naive as to think that everything will be easy or it will result in absolute consensus, but I want to suggest that by accepting the struggle we are opening ourselves up to learning, growth, cohesion, and success as a community.

One of the youth group members referred to this recently, saying a major thing that they have gotten out of being part of youth group is accepting that every year the group goes through a hard patch but that they know now from their experience that working through the conflicts and the challenges is what helps the group come together. For this youth grouper, this learning helps them cope with challenges in all aspects of their life.

It was storming when we went through the sanctuary process. It wasn’t easy and there were lots of differences of opinion. Now as we are embarking on having someone in sanctuary new challenges come up regularly and we need to figure them out. And we do -- over and over again. The amazing sanctuary team, Core Accompaniment Team, and accompaniment volunteers are working through the hard parts to make this happen and there is so much learning, communicating, and getting to know each other better as a result. We are learning how to be together, how to get along, and how to support someone living in our basement and taking refuge. I can say for myself that this process has introduced me to many more members of our congregation as well as others from the community; I have some wonderful new friends in Irida and her family. I have practiced my problem solving skills, my communication, and flexibility. I feel privileged to be a part of this. I have heard from many people involved that it makes them feel connected and provides a sense of purpose.

I recently got to be part of storming with my colleagues: I am part of a listserv for UU religious educators. Recently, another DRE wrote to the group, questioning the term “white supremacy” and suggesting that we stop using it. This sparked a heated debate about how we talk about white privilege and how we can teach and reach others. There were messages about the origin of the term white supremacy and examples of conversations that have happened in different UU churches. People of color shared their experiences of the term, people in the south shared how they hear the term. At first, I felt nervous about the exchange. I was quick to judge comments and worried about what would come of this debate. Oh no, everyone’s fighting!

And yet...There was so much rich, fascinating information that went back and forth. As a UUA staff member said, “White supremacy culture is an intentionally disruptive phrase.” The struggle and the tension were necessary because this topic is uncomfortable and we can’t pretend that it isn’t. It is important to remember that these conflict are rife with growth. We may not have done a perfect job and I can only hope that the people of color involved -- whose opinions are critical here -- felt heard and valued. I think some people may have changed their minds. I know that we are all the wiser because of it and it was a positive experience because of our commitment to learning together. For me, I learned more about the issue, but I also was pushed to embrace debate and differences of opinion.

It was a perfect example of trying to live out the 3rd principle -- accepting one another and learning together. We did not need to reach consensus, but we did need to accept the differences of opinion. This notion seems increasingly rare in our world today.

It is hard to have these open and honest conflicts with people but seems more and more necessary. Starting to practice healthy conflict here in our community with principles to guide our search and common agreements is a safe testing ground.

Common agreements are the next stage of group development: the norming stage. Creating norms and ways that a group will work together -- explicit or implied. In my experience, this is something that a healthy group will do over and over as storming may continue when new problems arise.

I think the best example of norming is creating a covenant -- which the youth group does once it has entered the storming stage -- they don’t do it right at the beginning of the year. We remember to “Listen to One Another” and “Share Air Space” and “Respect Each Other” It is something that the RE classes and committees do. Buddy and the Bunnies create norms when they play together and establish how they will be together -- like, they vote on whether or not Buddy will eat them. I am not sure if you have noticed,but the norms are often more valuable when things are hard. Perhaps revisiting or revising when people do not get along.

The last step is performing. That is when a group actually achieves a task that they set out to do. They will use what they have learned to do this. And only really having suffered through the storming can a group succeed because they have figured out how they will cope with all of the surprises and snafus that might be thrown at them. Buddy and the bunnies perform when they all decide to be friends. This would happen with the AmeriCorps group when they put on full day environmental education event. Or even just not kill each other during a weekend, snowed in in the middle of nowhere. It happens with the youth group when they lead a worship service. It is happening right now here as Irida and our community have our needs met simultaneously in this space.

I wanted to share this framework with you all because it is often so easy to get caught up in what is hard when working or worshipping or serving in a group. I am quick to decide that things are going horribly wrong when people don’t agree or something is going to pose some challenges to people. When I pause and broaden my perspective, I am able to see the myriad opportunities for growth in challenging situations. I can realize and recognize that I am having a hard time with exactly something that I need to get better at. My growing edges are provoked to bud.

When I think about it, I can appreciate how much we have to gain when we work together as a group and we work through the challenges.

Not only do we have so much to gain, we then have the group to fall back on. In this faith community, we get to create important bonds of support over and over for when things are difficult for each of us.

Take a moment to reflect on the challenges that you have faced over the past year. Then consider, what have you learned from them? Did they push the very edges that you needed to grow? What have you gained?

How has your community supported you and/ or pushed you to grow?

As we start to embark on a new year together I hope that this community can offer a model for all of us for healthy growth and learning -- confronting the hard things and working through them together. Having fun storming the castle. Maybe we can create miracles?