A Letter to a New Minister (Kendyl Gibbons, on the occasion of my ordination)

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2016-06-05 17.21.17

My dear Jordinn,

You are to be congratulated for your courage, if nothing else, in thus affording me yet one more opportunity to offer you instruction, just in case all my prior efforts now appear to me to have borne insufficient fruit. Particularly in a context that precludes you from contesting either the accuracy of my observations or the wisdom of my insights. On your head be it!

[Editor’s note- this blog is so handy for contestations of all sorts . . . .😉 ]

I hold it a great honor to be invited to recall you, and us, from the elevation of this occasion, with all its festive trappings and warmth of affection for you as a friend, colleague, and blossoming minister, to consider the deeply serious nature of today’s undertaking.

Even though such gatherings as these are indeed, as our colleague Mark Belletini describes them, “high play,” they are not all fun and games. What we have just done, with your assent, is to lay upon you a mark, a burden, and a gift. It is my task to see to it that the mark is indelible, the burden is well grasped, and the gift is seen to be precious and sacred.

By designating you an ordained minister in the living tradition of the free church, we have marked you out as a person worthy of trust and authority. We have invited our fellow Unitarian Universalists in particular, and the world in general, to look to you for institutional leadership, personal integrity, and a compassionate presence.

You are no longer a merely private person, but a public, living witness to the claims of this faith, and to the duties of the vocation that you and I now share.   How you conduct your life, no less than what you preach and teach, reflects upon the credibility of this movement, and this profession. Today that mark may seem to you, and to all of us, a joyful honor, but the time will come when you will find it irksome to be endlessly on display as a model of the demanding values we espouse, and you will understand why this is a matter of solemn vows.

I charge you to remember the love and trust in which we bestowed this office upon you, and to fulfill the covenant you have made in the name of all that is holy.

I know that you understand the burden of ministry, to be present to the distress of the world without panic, or denial, or becoming indifferent and numb. People will bring you the pain of their losses and despair, their failures and finitudes, their broken hearts and broken dreams, hoping that you can help them to find courage and strength to keep believing in the possibility of new life.

You will see the dysfunction of relationships and institutions, as well as the injustices and tragedies of the world, and yearn to give healing. Inevitably, you will be profoundly aware of your own limitations, and feel inadequate to these demands, for in truth, you are.

We all are.

You cannot fix, or save, the world; you cannot fix or save another person. All you can do, all any of us can do, is to bring that pain and despair into a place of compassionate attention and truthful witness, which is where all healing starts.

The power of transformation lies not in your intelligence or resourcefulness, but in the creative energy of the universe, which is always and everywhere present, though we are so often blind to it. You must not try to absorb into your own heart the distress that you meet with in others; you must – believe me, now; I know you know this; you must – have a practice that enables you to ground that anxiety and sorrow in the larger life of all that is, in God, by whatever name you may know it.

That is your task — to be the one who is not crippled by the awareness of all the hurt in the world; who knows where to go for sustenance; who can stand in the presence of oppression and fear and heartache and let it run through you to an ultimate, infinite source where it can do no harm. I charge you to have a vibrant, enduring relationship with that source, which will allow you to remember that you are not god; you, and your work, are a strand in the web, not the web, nor yet the weaver.

Of course, none of us would undertake these formidable duties if the calling of ministry were not also a priceless gift.

You have been summoned to live as if everything you do matters, and to stand with your fellow human beings in the most significant, sacred, and – to give an over-used phrase its actual meaning – truly awesome moments of their lives. You are expected to ponder the deepest questions of the human condition, and people will await your conclusions eagerly, hoping to find guidance for their own perplexities.

All that is most tender and precious in the unfolding of our common experience you are meant to share, and celebrate, and give voice. I promise you, if you will live it out faithfully, there is no more fully human existence than the vocation of ministry. I charge you to rejoice in the privilege of this office, to embrace its generous opportunities for creativity and community, for meaning and service and on going spiritual growth.

We have marked you out for service; remember to be the servant not of our desires, but of the holy purposes of love, truth and righteousness.

You have taken up the burden of the world’s sorrows and suffering; do not seek to carry it by your own strength alone.

Be assured that however great your struggle with your own finitude, the truly important work is not about you.

And take joy in the deep wells of shared meaning and growth that the calling of ministry opens to you.

Thus I charge you on this auspicious day, and welcome you into the community of those whose lives are given to the service of the most high.

May the bright promise of this hour be fulfilled in many years of fruitful ministry.

Bless you, dear one, and all those you will touch in faith for the rest of your days.

-Kendyl

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The Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, MO, the 2015 recipient of the Humanist of the Year Award from the UU Humanist Association, and a beloved mentor and teaching pastor to 26 Unitarian Universalist seminarians across four decades. 

When freedom’s just another word

chicago puddle

Two Sundays ago, I attended St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago. It’s the home of the Episcopal Archdiocese of Chicago, and delivers the full smells-and-bells liturgical worship—so give it a miss if you don’t like incense, kneeling communion, or a sung (Latin) liturgy. From start to finish, modernist entry plaza to soaring cathedral ceiling, the experience is intended to get your attention.

And yet, the thing about well-executed liturgy, be it humble or spectacular, is that it creates a container that’s reliable enough to hold us and predictable enough to fade from view. Because then we are free to go deep into a heart experience as a complement to our head truths.

It is a sign of ritual efficacy, then, that the most searing moment of my Sunday worship experience was not being spritzed with holy water or choked with frankincense; it was hearing the full import of an offhand remark from the priest.

“We remember the promises of baptism,” she intoned, “as we deepen our faith journey in these days—and there are 50 of them; did you know that?— of Easter.”

Me, dreamily: Yes, we remember the . . .

Wait, what!?

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(Do Lutherans also observe this? Have I missed a key feature of the church year for the entirety of my life so far? WHY would Easter need to continue for FIFTY DAYS?)

I probably have missed this, friends. Willfully. Joyfully.

Because here’s a fun fact: I don’t want 50 days of Easter.

Not at all. I have a hard time with one day of Easter, quite honestly, between the too-bright promises of the heaven not in keeping with my theology, and the too-sugary substitutes of the secular YAY SPRING alternative. It’s sleight of hand, all of it, and it leaves me nothing for the tricks and reversals of the rest of the season. Candy wrappers and an empty tomb for the long slog through April.

And a slog it has been.

Practice resurrection, instructs a Wendell Berry poem favored by UUs this time of year.

And I have been. But friends, resurrection kind of sucks.  It’s not pretty. And we think of it in terms of continuity, but it doesn’t work that way. First, you die. And then things are different. Jesus doesn’t get to live among us anymore. Lazarus ends up exiled from his people. Resurrection is active and demanding, and not a continuation so much as a starting over—one that leaves us holding, even as we begin a new life, the broken or bloody pieces of whatever came before.

In fact, I am pretty sure that practicing resurrection is more work than simply dying.

Endings, however terrible, break over us with the force of a tidal wave. We need do nothing. They just come for us. Reemergence, on the other hand,requires effort. Which asks energy. Which we may not have in those first squinting moments.

Here on earth, a rebirth may look like wiggling a pinky finger and calling it movement. It might mean trudging and calling it hope.

Meanwhile, our monthly worship theme is “Freedom,” and it feels purely incongruous. That word, made of stars and stripes, of watermelon, of soaring birds and open highways, it has crash landed in Chicago in April.  Freedom picks itself up, tries to unfold its wings, but finds only gray skies and dampness everywhere.  The brown puddles gather on the sidewalks, flow over manhole covers, slosh into the gutters.

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One evening, I begin the walk home from the store just as drizzle turns to downpour.  I couldn’t have hailed a cab that night with a hundred dollar bill in my hand, much less three soaked bags of groceries. I try anyway, as the rain makes creekbeds of the streets, soaks my hat and hair, and flows, impossibly, from the top of my head to the inside of my coat.

Water runs down the back of my neck and under my shirt and into my boots and I am drenched and miserable to my skin.

To my soul.

It remains unclear, days later, whether this was a low point of my life or merely of my week, but I am quite certain that I require no further weeks of this celebration.

Party over. Goodbye Easter. Take your drizzly and disappointing friends with you.

And take your resurrections as well. You know what the tomb stands for, actually? Certainty. Closure. And above all, rest.

I’m supposed to forsake all those for the neverending vulnerability of It might be so? For the messy ambiguities of living, for the certain heartbreak of loving?

Friends, I have always been a crappy disciple. I betray. I doubt. I’d trade my dreams for a handful of beans every week if the exchange of “possibility” took its friend “ambiguity” with it.

handful of beans

And I don’t want 50 days of Easter because the truth is that I’d cut and run from even one of those days if I could. Whether it’s the holy hopes of Jesus or the humus-centered humanism of Wendell Berry, resurrection asks too much of me. I know what’s under that shiny second chance: obligation as far as the eye can see.

It is, in short, the opposite of freedom.

And there is truth in that. I didn’t know there was a particular label for this gathering of spring days, but a season is a season whether we name it so or not. Easter. Search. Spring. Thirty-something angst. Name them as you will; the fact is that is easier to hail a cab in the Chicago Loop in the rain than to escape from any season prematurely.

And there are so many seasons in our lives, and we may not initially recognize them for what they are. Would that the hardest things we deal with be calendar or weather related. How much easier if the great intractable wrestling match of this spring truly involved the Easter bunny. Indeed, I would prefer to choose my seasons, to hand-pick my struggles.

The truth: things unasked for take hold and wrap their arms around us for a time, and we are helpless.

It is hard.  And the sole escape from the work is the tomb, whether we seek it bodily or spiritually. That has always been the alternative to trudging up that hill. Again. In the rain.  To painful growth.  To the expectations that lead, inevitably, to obligation.

And so, “freedom.”

Ha.

I guess it looks like walking, friends.

Trudging. Dog paddling, if needed, through the puddles.

And then we stop to rest, find that yes, this day too has an end, and believe that someday the season will, too. These must be enough for this moment: the stopping points, and the beginnings that lie just beyond.  Enough that they will come. Enough that we will move toward them. Enough that we will keep breathing in the meantime.

For the crappy disciples among us, the freedom may lie in surrender. Not to the tomb, but to this time. To this season. To these 50 days of whatever . . .

To be followed, again, by ordinary time.

j

 

Someday comes the choosing

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source: Pixabay

There are always some of us living in whispers, tiptoeing through places both as transient as the bus station and insubstantial as the spring spiderweb.

Liminal space:  where our lives stretch taut between past and future; the charged moment; the pregnant pause.

This week, UU ministers and congregations are nearing the end of the search process. Whittling down. Narrowing toward decisions.

Our family is among these, and like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, our children give voice to the questions. (In childhood, fun and wonder occur on an annual cycle, and so our sons are constantly planning for the next go round. “Next year, can we . . .?” )

These entreaties are as predictable as the slam of the screen door in summer, and I’ve never had cause to give them more than a passing thought.

Yes, of course we will go to the pumpkin patch. Yes, of course we can pick apples. Yes, we will have Thanksgiving with–

Until now.

The bland assurances die in my throat.   (I have . . . no idea, friends.)

Eventually, I take a breath, and say with firm cheer that we will DEFINITELY be somewhere, doing something.

Which is apparently as reassuring to them as it is to me. The boys teeter for a moment between the floor-gripping horror of childhood’s early years and the skeptical derision of its middle ones, and then they request specifics. And so we begin again with the litany of possibility, repeated and embellished from day to day.

Yes, I think they have pumpkins in Smithville. Indeed, there are tacos in Springfield.

I promise that Santa will find us on Christmas, and yes, I am positive that we can find someone to make you the dragon fortress cookie for your birthday. (Note to self: am I positive? Will there still be birthday cookies?)

And remember: they have [insert whatever fairy tale feature makes each place a little more delectable . . and a little more unreal].

And so, the boys return again to the maps. Pointing with fingers that are no longer quite so tiny, at the ponds and coastlines and contours that may see these small, curious boy-hands into teenagerhood.

Behind them, out the window, the last stand of hardwood forest in a neighborhood now standing atop it. Beyond that, hills and limestone and prairie, a land of green plains moving westward, flattening as the sky opens wide above them.

These are strange days. A bit fraught. A bit magical. The lobster holds court with the western meadowlark, and cathedral spires rise with the peal of bells over our beloved prairie.

And everywhere around us, the larger country of the unknown; the place in which a map is always yearned for, and for which none shall ever be created.

This unknowing is, I suspect, what drives us mad about liminal space. We feel rootless. Groundless. Unable to build.

But that isn’t entirely true.

Yesterday, in a moving Easter liturgy, Kendyl Gibbons pointed out that the blunt obviousness of salvation by literal, organic presence “was never the point.” The point, instead? That enduring vision is what makes a way out of no way.

My friends, we can, indeed, build in this space. It’s just that we can’t anchor here.

We are building visions, and containing possibilities too grand to exist on the everyday scale. There is no room in the realities we inhabit for the lobster and the meadowlark to live together. There will be no Italian marble on the prairie, no waving wheat in Waterbury.

We choose, in the end, the path less taken (or the one more familiar, come to that) because in the real world, eventually, we must. But not yet. Not here. Here, for an eternity both precious and painful, we can build it all.

And so, we are dreaming, together.

Next comes the choosing. The dawning. The litany, made real.

But for now, there is just this moment, made sacred by our hopes.

For now, let us, each and all, dream.

j

Send us a Minister! (reporting live, from Unitarian Universalism’s Big Dance)

One of the sole romantic stories that Unitarian Universalism allows itself is that of English minister John Murray’s arrival on this continent. Widowed and heartbroken, Murray gave up preaching to sail to America and begin his life anew. However, his New York-bound ship became stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey when winds died, and Murray was sent ashore for provisions. There, he came across one Thomas Potter, who, as the story goes, had been waiting for him. For ten years. Potter had built a church, in fact, believing that God would send him a minister to preach the radical message of universalism.

Potter makes a deal with the reluctant Murray that if the ship cannot sail before the sabbath, Murray will come ashore and preach Sunday morning—and ultimately, the American era of Universalism is born.

 

A miracle, it hath occurred. If this had happened in any other faith, there would be a shrine and a pilgrimage route.

As befits our faith, however, the question I want to consider belongs purely to the pedestrian side of this equation:

Where was the putative congregation in all this?

One assumes that Potter’s offer is predicated on the understanding that there were people, come Sunday, who would wish to be preached to. If so, these people had been waiting for years for the arrival of their minister.*

Possibly the early universalists were more patient than the modern UUs I know. Imagine us, sitting ever so quietly in our pews. Praying, “Send us a minister!”

I have been thinking about this because we modern Unitarian Universalists are in the midst of the season known as “the search process.”

This is where, and how, congregations and ministers find one another.

And for the first time ever, I am a participant. (A player? A pawn?)

White chess pawn standing on chessboard

 

The whole baroque process is frequently compared to dating (read: group blind dating, with the intent to marry—it’s more like The Bachelor than dinner with the guy from next door), and there are certainly analogues. A focus on photogenic details. Will-they-call anxiety. Casual social media stalking. The occasional messy breakup. And delightful pieces as well—the unanticipated giddy joy, the previously-uncontemplated attractions, the writing of names, together, for effect.

There are modern sandbars, to be sure. Unexpected blizzards, Skype mishaps, and missed connections literal and figurative have all played a role this season.

And like their early American counterparts, the people are waiting. Have been waiting, in some of these congregations, for years. Finally, we are ready to call a minister.

And yet, unless we plan to put a level of trust and patience in divine providence that would be—let’s say unusual—in this movement, the truth is that “Send us a minister” is not what this process looks like.

Go fishing for a minister, maybe. Purchase a minister on the commodities market, if we forget the deeper call of our theology. But not, generally, “Sit here and wait patiently until someone else sends us one.”

And each year, participants on every side of this expensive and convoluted process lament that. If only God (actually no one says that) If only Keith Kron/the transitions office/the UUA/somebody would just “do the matching for us.”

Send us a minister.

Or send us a sandbar on which we might catch one.

SUDBURY, MASSACHUSETTS:  18th century First Parish Unitarian Church

SUDBURY, MA- First Parish Unitarian Church Not currently in search, friends.  :)

I wasn’t sure when, after months preparing to interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I’d ever voluntarily read the Cambridge Platform again.

But friends, the answer is now. I am reading it again now, and am considering the magic and miracle of a history that believes that our congregations—that our people—know best.

And so, we don’t “send” ministers.

We cultivate faith and hope . . . and then we send packets. We send paperwork. We send greetings to the people who are themselves the deciders, and thus we decide, with every e-mail, which send-off to use.  Sincerely? Too cold. Fondly? Too warm. Warmly? What are we talking about, here? Blessings! (I have “blessed” more people in the past six weeks than in the whole of my life before this. )

And eventually, if things progress to the point of “serious relationship,” we send ourselves, in person.

We ministers in the congregational-polity tradition claim a significant amount of agency over our own futures. Over the spaces in which we will live into our calls. And this is true not merely incidentally, but because the freedom of the pulpit–and the pew–that inheres in our covenantal theology requires this. We choose freely and discern together at every step of the way, practicing and modeling exactly those skills we will need for our journey together in shared ministry.

And yet we grasp, sometimes, for something easier, and there is a reason for that.

Because this is hard.

This year, I’m engaged in this process as a minister, but the truth is, search is also very difficult for our congregations. It’s expensive, and there may be budget worries. It’s time consuming—four hours per week, on average, for an entire year (and that “four hours” gives little perspective; try 20 to 30 hours on precandidating weekends; more if you happen to be the committee chair and de-facto “host”), and everyone is busy.

And yet, these people do this on volunteer hours. They are keeping the faith and communicating a theology of people and place out of love for both. I think we forget this sometimes, both as ministers and as a denomination: that what happens in our congregations—that they exist in the first place, and that they continue to thrive–is a beautiful miracle.

This truth, that we are covenanted, not legislated, holds deep import for how we will search for an engage our ministers.

And yet there’s another piece of this that deserves mention: the heartbreak. This process is a path to heartbreak.

This is true because we meet each other in the same spirit of voluntary openness required to forge true partnership. Our communication happens tentatively at first, and then with greater and greater openness; the kind that leaves hearts on the line. The kind that demands risks, individually and together.

Tears will be shed this spring, my people. They already have been, and what I hope we understand is that this is not a bad thing.

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On the contrary.

Because what happens, underneath it all, is that our ministers and our search committees use faith—their own, and our collective assurances—to hold ambiguity, so that everyone else doesn’t have to.

In a free faith, creativity and self-determination are key, and to allow those to be part of the selection process, someone has to tolerate the uncertainty. The search committees, and the candidate ministers: We are the designated feelers in this process.  Not to appease the demands of hierarchy, but as a function of democracy. Because our history and our hope are staked on the radical notion that congregations know their needs best and must chart their course freely—and that ministers must be equally free to follow the dictates of their own call and consciences.

A process that takes this equation out of our collective hands, while administratively neater and in many respects, much simpler, would bear little resemblance to what ought to be our touchstone: life in our congregations.

An uncomfortable truth lurking within the 1646 text of the Cambridge Platform is that our congregations do this—hold, know, and care; preach, teach and lead—they do all this—with, and also without their ministers.

We ministers can help hold a vision, but it is unto the members of our congregations that the container for it is entrusted. We ministers can speak to the spark of our highest aspirations, but is our congregations who must keep the literal fires burning.

We remember this at pledge time. But how deep is our consideration of congregational ownership and the sacred demands of a shared ministry in the moments that are mere precursor?

As we send pieces of ourselves—and then our bodies, our families—across the country, repeatedly, in the name of call?

We Unitarian Universalists affirm the democratic principle: one person, one vote.  We carry forward the sacred trust of our history. We believe in the bright magic of our dreams.

And so, what other process could there be?

We need a bishop.

It is true, friends, that this process is hard. Holy moments hold space with disillusionment and sometimes, with betrayal. Thousands of dollars are spent, and more are promised. Hopes have grown large, and hearts will yet be broken. But where else, I wonder, are hopes and hearts and dollars on the line? For what larger dance are we rehearsing?

I want, even now, to be making ready for it.

But it would be so much easier if we had a more formal matching process, with fewer choices.

Just send us.

Brown mail delivery package with tag

No.

I beg to differ.

This has been an awesomely challenging few months. We are all tired. And certainly, we and this process need both pastoring and guidance from the larger denomination. Beyond Categorical Thinking is a key example of input-from-above that shapes a process with more fairness, and more joy, available for all.

But in the end, I have to cast my lot with the committees and the quorums.

I choose this process for the same reason I choose our congregations, and I hang in when it’s hard for the same reason that we come back to the table, and to our covenants, time and time again.

I have, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, no choice but “to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

Those are my people.

And this is all of our process.

Not from a ship, then, and not from denominational authorities, either, but from this long and sometimes awkward dance— from these very committee meetings, these phone calls, these e-mails, these questions and answers and these half-articulated hopes . . .

There is appearing, already on the horizon, the future we have dreamed of.

It is our ministry.        

Together.

Amen.

j

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*Fun fact, as best we can tell: The “congregation” was composed of Potter’s friends and neighbors, and they had indeed been waiting for 10 years—because they thought he was an idiot, and that Universalism was a heresy. Our sermon illustrations are at times imperfect. Wrestle with this as you will.

Because “As long as they’re having fun” is not enough

There are six words that I hear fairly often in Unitarian Universalist churches in discussing the religious experiences of our UU children and youth. They are six words that apparently sound innocuous to hearers. Or perhaps it’s that they sound like freedom, the mythical kind that can exist only after every obligation is taken away and a happiness-filled vacuum remains.

As long as they’re having fun.

To me, on the other hand, this phrase sounds like neither freedom nor happiness. In fact, as the mother of two children, myself, these words make me feel just a bit crazed.

They are most often delivered with a shrug and a sweep of the hand, in response to questions about what we might or might not want our children to get out of their church experience.

As long as they’re having fun, I don’t really worry about that.  

Friends.

People of faith.

Let us talk.

It’s no secret that our movement has a hard time hanging onto our children once they reach the teen years. Denominations, in general, are not great at retention, but we Unitarian Universalists have for two generations been particularly noteworthy in this category. And by noteworthy, I mean ignominious.

And much has been said about this.

  • It’s because we don’t tell them we want to keep them.
  • It’s because we inspire them to be openminded, so their departure from our faith is probably well-considered and is actually a mark of success.
  • It’s because everyone keeps saying they all leave, so please don’t write about this—you’ll further traumatize them.

Um.

I’ll leave untangling those three threads to the experts.

But there is another piece—a fourth piece—that I do want to talk about. As a religious professional and also, particularly, as a parent.

It’s a piece about discipline. Yes, I said that. You can tar and feather me in a moment. You know, after you finish reading.

A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a task force on religious education in one of our congregations—a church that was literally established in the hope of offering liberal faith to its young. We were tasked with creating a set of deliverables, one of which was a “basket of things we might offer to someone born into our congregation, over the years of their childhood and youth.” We eventually came up with a job description, but no such basket was identified or created. And there were nights, amid long hours of careful wordsmithing, when I honestly considered sliding from my seat to lie down on the floor. Or slipping outside to howl at the moon.

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The other participants were deeply committed to the congregation . . . and several were equally deep in their belief that the only thing we can offer to our children in good faith is a blank slate. Anything else—any list of what we’d like for faith inputs or developmental outcomes—is tantamount to “indoctrination.” “Brainwashing.” Later that same year, I spoke passionately about my wish to see my children included in the worship hour, at least by their presence there, and was met with the rejoinder “In my day, we didn’t punish our children like that.”

Here, friends, is my tale of boredom and brainwashing—the kind that taught me to love church, to love your church, into middle adulthood. There was a white robe in my size, and a long pole, flame on the far end, lifted up to light more than fifty candles in the darkness of a magical Christmas Eve. There was sitting, to be sure, in pews and classrooms, more than I can tell you over the course of a childhood.

prayer candles

As a youth, 8 classmates and I met Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings for a two-year period. We sat in the front pews, raised eyebrows at one another in worship, and made notes for the sermon summaries we were required to write. Each had to conclude with at least one question we’d like to discuss further. And we never knew when Pastor Rockwood would smile from up on that chancel at the group of us in the pews, or direct a quip our way to make sure we were listening.

This was work, to be sure. And it was also a continual invitation into the life of the church—a deep welcome. It was a pain in the butt sometimes; juggling confirmation around schoolwork and other activities is a big commitment, and from my parents most of all. Who, I should perhaps mention, are atheists. My parents were Nones before that was cool—and they made time to shuttle me back and forth to church regardless. My religious upbringing in the ELCA—the liberal Lutheran church—was left to my grandparents and to my own discretion, but my parents were willing to support my zeal because they believed in the value of discipline and that several millennia of accumulated human wisdom probably count for something.

Carmel Mission

I am persuaded that the investment was worth it—and I’m grateful to have been held by a community where I was encouraged to make and keep commitments.

So I ask you: what do we Unitarian Universalists believe in? Not as a shared theology, but collectively about our children? What we might offer to our kids in the 18 or so years that we could assuredly have them among us?

I hear us talking about our first graders as the reason that we, as adults, stop coming to church.

I don’t want to fight with them.

They don’t want to go. They complain.

As though the complaints of a 6 year old are the natural litmus test for anything important.

Taking kids seriously is important. I am a big proponent—and practictioner, in my best moments—of deep listening to our kids. The kind of listening that sits on the bedroom floor alongside them, that waits to speak, that keeps breathing so they can, too.

But we don’t need to draw a straight line from listening to action. And truly, sometimes the larger process of growth requires that we refuse to alter course in the face of complaint.

A story about this:

I grew up swimming. I taught myself to float in the bathtub, was the weird tiny kid in swimming lessons with the big ones, and experienced childhood constantly attended by green hair and the faint smell of bleach.

Interior of public indoor swimming pool

But I never was an excellent swimmer. Not good enough to make the cut at all-state. What I was, in the end and in spite of myself, was a disciplined one. And the discipline is what has mattered for everything that came afterward.

Swimming, and later teaching and lifeguarding, took me first around the state and then around the country. I interned for Disney and worked for Seeds of Peace—both because of swimming. I wanted to be in those places for the mission, but they hired me because of what I could offer them.  These were skills cultivated by two decades of not raw talent, but commitment—the kind that sees you through 5:30 a.m. call times and twice daily practices, Saturday meets, sit-ups and shoulder pain.

And eventually I got to those places because during the summer of my seventh year, my mom stood firm against my swimming strike. I remember it still, and the weird thing is, there’s nothing much to tell—just as there wasn’t in that moment. I don’t know why I didn’t want to go to swim lessons. I remember not knowing then, either. It’s just that I didn’t. Not that day, not anymore, not ever again if I could help it, and after explaining this to my mother and being met with incredulity, I hid under the Holly Hobbie cover of my bedside table.

My mother found me and considered, nonplussed. And then she hauled me out, put me in the car, and took me to swim lessons. I was furious. Ditto the next day. On the third day, I was still mad, but knew it was a losing battle. By the next week, I was happy to go again.

Schoolgirl with goggles in swimming pool

I remembered this later, at 13, when I joined the high school varsity swim team for one of the rudest awakenings of my life. I have never worked so hard, swallowed so much water, known such misery. And when I tossed myself into the car between early and late practices that first day, I knew I was going to quit. And then I looked at my mother’s face and knew that I wasn’t. Oh, cruel fate. This time, however, she cut me a deal. Do this in good faith for two weeks. If you still want to quit then, I won’t say anything else.

I didn’t quit.  By the third day or so, I knew I wouldn’t.  But I remember that rule now, in the trenches. And I am so grateful to have had parents who believed in me enough to ask me to wait it out. To show up with me, to cheer even that time I swam the last lap alone, to believe that showing up and swimming really does matter.

Swimmers About To Touch Finishing Line In A Race

We need communities that believe that. Our kids deserve them, even when that commitment means that they are not, in a given moment, having fun.

And you might be surprised about what happens when you have a frank conversation with a complaining six or seven year old. One that sounds like, we will be going to church. Every week. So we can fight about it, or we can find a way to enjoy this family ritual together—but we’re going. [And then smile.]

We did have precisely this conversation at our own house two years ago with my willful older child. We talked lovingly, but I meant business, and I kid you not: problem solved. Immediately.

I am sure that the issue will come up again over the years, and we’ll talk honestly—but my own clarity around what matters here helps tremendously. We, as a family, go to church. We also eat dinner, take showers, and feed the pets. When things are treated as non-negotiables, they develop the force of gravity in your family life, and they stop being objects of conflict. (This idea is called the “Wall of Futility” by parenting coaches, and it really does work—but you have to be clear about what’s a given in your household. Including around faith.)

Boy hiding

And yet, as a people, we treat discipline, whether spiritual or parental, like it’s a bad word. Synonymous with punishment.

My people, it is not. Discipline forms the basis of engaged spiritual practice. It can be beautiful. It’s even poetic.

As Marge Piercy writes in her powerful poem, “To Be of Use,”

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm.

We need this in our churches if they are to function as organizations. And we need it spiritually as well—the ability to cultivate discipline is part of what makes us truly human.

Call me old school, but I am indeed staking a claim on a different vision—and I’m doing it as a Unitarian Universalist.

And with a hard awareness: we still might not keep our kids. My kids are UUs, not Lutherans, and a study of our history in this past year has me persuaded, at least for now, that a faith that not only embraces freedom but holds freedom at and as its very center will always need a halfway covenant for its children. Generations of our kids, raised in freedom and never needing to seek it, have grown to become seekers of something else.

We may indeed lose them from active participation in this faith, but even without creeds, we can be intentional about bequeathing unto our young something for their journey. What would we like that to be? And how will we do the work of it—and invite our children’s hands to be part of what we build?

Having fun is certainly a value.

Now what’s our religion?

In faith,

j

discipline road sign illustration design

A container for grace: reflections on white people, privilege, and pitchforks

Woman hand pointing down

These past couple of months, I have been dealing with the fallout from a mistake I made in trying to talk meaningfully about my own white privilege. I shared a facebook post from a seminarian of color, and in doing so, took out a lighthearted hashtag in a deadly-serious paragraph, which I feared my own readers would interpret as a permission not to take my colleague’s words with the reflectivity that they otherwise might. I then wrote to this seminarian to explain what I’d done and ask if it was ok.

It was, to put it mildly, not ok.  Values at issue here included my space-taking and assumptive behavior as a white woman, and a larger obligation to think, and then to think harder, before acting. And there is also, probably, the obnoxiousness of the post I wrote in the first place. No one has said so, but the meditation I wrote to introduce my colleague’s post to my circle of friends feels to me to have touched the white privilege discussion only insofar as naming it and concluding that, “basically, I don’t have to give a shit.”

No, I didn’t precisely say that. And I didn’t mean that, either. Except that I actually sort of did, and having since sat through two excruciating white-folks-talk-about-race panel discussions, I am beginning to think that we white people actually do this a lot as a starting point. (“I have privilege! You probably don’t! Here’s what privilege looks like! WOW, my life is easier!”) It can sound a lot like Criming While White, but for mommy bloggers, and I’m wrestling with whether this piece of our work is even something that’s helpful to do publicly.

At any rate, that happened, and what I came to understand in the ensuing back and forth with this seminarian, my mentors, and my fellow colleagues in formation is that there are many different values around sharing posts, editing words, and claiming space.

And also, I came to understand something else.

Which is that we as Unitarian Universalists have no framework for dealing with true transgression among us—and lacking such a container, find ourselves equally unable to offer grace.

My mistake, from the very beginning, was dealt with extremely publicly, and the responses from my white colleagues fell into two binary buckets (with a third, HUGE space we’ll call “utter silence”).

Two plastic buckets, one full, one empty

That first bucket was “Say it ain’t so!” I’ve held a couple of visible leadership positions in the seminarian community, and my making this kind of mistake was apparently rather stunning for some. I received message after message indicating, “I KNOW this isn’t right—you didn’t do this.”

Oh, friends. Oh, but I did.

Publically, this side of the discourse looked like, “Don’t talk about Jordinn like that!,” and subsequent attempts to shut down discussion of transgression, and of racism in our seminarian community, because this particular incident and its framing felt unfair.

The other bucket, meanwhile, was, “Shame on you!” A seminarian from another school went so far as to say, “When I think that someone among us, someone preparing for ministry, would do SOMETHING LIKE THIS . . . ” Another invited me to reconsider my call. At my own seminary, several of my classmates declined to stand next to me at our weekly vespers service, and one went so far as to refuse to look me in the eye.

67 dmlseS5qcGc=

In short, this situation was keen to enforce its own script, and the roles were limited to two dimensions. One was called “Victim.” One was called “Perpetrator.”

That’s the same script on two different sides– and it tries to restrict access to people as complex individuals, constantly in the midst of learning, with behaviors and understandings that sometimes are on mark, and other times miss it and require correction. This script was tempting in a time of great anxiety, however, and I watched even people I knew consider it. And I get it. It’s critically important that I in no way be representative of the larger seminarian community if I’m going to mess up around race—because that would mean that we all have work to do. Or, scarier still, it could mean that we are not going to be able to do all of the work that we need to before the moments when we are called to speak about race.

It could in fact mean that we are going, inevitably, to fall short sometimes. To find ourselves, each of us, on the lesser side of our hopes, or called to see the shortcomings underneath our intentions.

It is perhaps interesting that during this same period, I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply, preaching a sermon about sin. It’s Lent, and it’s a good sermon: funny, poignant—and provocative.

It provokes because I am taking pains to explain to Unitarian Universalists—to my people, many of whom have never voluntarily observed Lent and for whom “repent” is maybe an actual cuss word—that our screw ups are indeed inevitable. And that when we accept this reality, it frees us—we become prophets able to live our faith with both integrity and gentleness. We walk with humility, take responsibility in our errors, and extend the hand of healing without encumbering our love with the concern that the person we’re reaching out to may not “deserve” it.

I preach this sermon wholeheartedly, but if I could hold my breath while doing that, I would. Because pushback around anything that suggests a mere whiff of guilt is inevitable in this current moment in our tradition.

And so I was not surprised a few weeks ago in Topeka when a man came up to me and said, I have a gripe with your sermon.

I was surprised, however, about what he suggested I add to my theology: the idea that “sin” should mean only that we have set the bar too high. And that when we understand that, then our screw ups really aren’t screw ups at all.

Stand back, y’all.

Web

There is indeed a bar here, and perhaps we should take a moment to look at it, and to consider our commitments as people of transformative faith.

I self-importantly edited someone else’s words, acting in my own arrogance. More recently, I yelled at my older son in my own impatience, and just this morning spoke unkindly to a friend out of my own sadness. I have definitely, in this past week, failed to act where I knew better and drawn uncharitable conclusions where I know nothing and also coveted things not my own. I have broken promises, some quite willfully, and while I don’t have Rob Eller-Isaacs’ litany of atonement memorized, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything in it to which we might ritually confess. Probably twice.

Also, just last week, seven people were apparently shot by one person in Florida, word comes from Germany that a man chose to deliberately kill 150 people by crashing a plane into a mountain, and the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law allowing optional discrimination against those who identify as GLBT.

But not to worry. We have all just set that damned bar too far beyond our reach.

Denial. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And oddly, I think it’s precisely this inclination toward denial that spawns both the frenzied grabbing of pitchforks that we UUs sometimes do, and the post-pitchfork mystification about what we might then do next. We screw up when we could do better. We screw up when we don’t know how to do better. We screw up when we don’t want to be bothered with doing better.

And in each of those moments, that bar is exactly where it needs to be. It’s not there to shame us. It’s there to set the mark that calls us forward.

And my people, we are that bar. We, so often, are all we have to call each other forward.

So we’d better learn to do it in a way that saves. What we need, y’all, is grace. The kind that finds us where we are. Here. Now. As we stand, leaping for that bar, and missing.

Depositphotos_46044905_xs

The trouble is that waiting to offer grace until we think that the other person deserves it is in fact the farthest thing from grace. It’s instead a quid pro quo ritual of the oldest sort, one performed at the edge of an abyss.   Someone needs to pay, and if we can simply figure out whom to push from the cliff, we can feel reassured that our spaces are once again transgression-free. And if in the ensuing conflict-free silence, we detect a whiff of terror . . .   well, at least it keeps our discussions simple and manageable. Who will take the risk to act otherwise?

Friends, our shame around whiteness and our horror at its costs are things we must begin to hold, to process, and to grieve. Even as we learn.

This particular error was a small one in the larger landscape of my own racism. And the truth is, pointing this out does nothing to lessen my involvement in enacting privilege—I’ve certainly done worse, and more cluelessly, and you probably have, too. And in those moments, we may in fact have had our actions not called out but condoned. This system does that.

But without a space able to hold the complexity in each of us—to hold us, sinners all—it becomes critically important that any error that taps into communal shame be an affront so egregious that it’s sure to be a one-off. Not the entitled rudeness that’s common as mud. Not the kind of mistake, in short, that you might make. Tomorrow. Or even sooner.

I heard it asserted, and repeatedly, that I “plagiarized something or other,” or “attacked a seminarian of color.” Consider what it means if we can’t find a space to sit with what actually happened, to ask curious questions about it, to attempt to understand how an inquiry about a hashtag could come to this.

Because it could. It did. And no additional elements are needed for that to be true— so what might happen if we claim some space, in love, to look at the ways in which we humans can hurt one another?

Without this space, what we have is silence, binaries . . . and a very tall cliff.

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Also, statements like the one from the seminarian who suggested that the responsible thing to have done would be to have known better than to screw up in the first place.

When 10 of my colleagues “liked” that comment, I knew we were in trouble . . . and friends, we are. Individually, collectively, in this space and in many others. In places where there is no identified space. On Facebook, and off of it.

Our shared dialogue is imperiled, and this conversation isn’t why—it’s simply symptomatic.

Without the courage to try, the humility to own failure, and the grace to stand up, extend a palm, and start again, there is no way for us to walk forward together.

We have to have conversations we’ve never attempted before. We have to learn to walk with people we’ve never loved before. We have to flex leadership muscles we haven’t used before.

And right now, we are failing to try. That third, silent bucket—the opt out between the two poles—it’s looking pretty good right now. It’s risk-free not to speak up.

Because the responsible thing is not to make the mistake in the first place. We are responsible people when we know better than to make mistakes.  

Truth: this stance is not responsible. It is not helpful. It is not honest. And yet, the bar is still there. And it’s not too high if we are to be people of transformative faith. Though it is quite true that our efforts will often fall short.

That’s a complex space in which to live, but it is our space. And calling ourselves humanists while denying that a lived truth of humanity is that we screw things up, all the time, makes us complicit in the same mental gymnastics and wishful thinking that our theology was designed to eschew.

No acceptance of transgression; no offering of grace.

And that means “cliff,” every time.

How excellent, then, that there are other choices. And how salvific that we have some spaces in which we might attempt them.

One framework might look like this:

For a given situation, let us do some discernment around what is and isn’t our business. Let us find inside of ourselves the muscle we might call our “holy courage.” Let us power it with love. And let us then learn to ask good questions from a place of curiosity.

We can use tools like this to help.

And let us, finally, get a handle on failure and the feelings that come with it.

What does disappointment mean to me? Can I handle it in others? Can I tolerate it in myself?

Do I feel like failure deserves to be met with shame? Where does that come from? Is it serving me—and more importantly, is it serving the larger We?

We must dare to envision something more. A place big enough to hold us all, and which isn’t content merely to hold us—challenge yourself to envision the place which dares to call us all into our next selves.

Let us dare to imagine more beauty. Let us dare to act with more courage, which so very often means with more love.

This sounds like a vision of perfection . . . I submit that it’s more likely the result of dealing truthfully with our shortcomings. They don’t have to scare us to teach us . . . and those who shame us cannot lead us.

In faith, my people.

j

It’s Not About You: finding slow church in a quickie culture

church bank

My husband and I fumbled toward regular church attendance like awkward teenagers might feel their way to third base. We were shy and shamefaced, almost desperate to connect with the larger something we’d heard through the grapevine that we might find here. But we wanted to find that something without attracting attention or admitting ignorance, and certainly without rearranging anything else in our lives. And so, on certain Sundays, we tended to fall into the event, crashing through the doors late, without planning or ceremony, and often still arranging errant pieces of clothing.

Other weeks we didn’t make it at all; we’re not exclusive, you know? We have lives. You understand. Also, we had very little stamina for a long and slow build up. Give us what we want, now, so we can get out of here.

And yet eventually, we became one with that community anyway. They were just so . . . loving. But the blending, on our end, was mostly incidental and accidental—because our focus, of course, was on meeting our own needs.

And the weeks and months passed. And sometimes: we felt satisfied.

Mostly, though, we didn’t. Something is missing, we began to whisper to each other.

And since we knew that something wasn’t in us, then the problem, clearly, lay with the church.

Something was wrong with this congregation. It’s you, church. It has to be you.  

And so, we did the rational thing:

We prepared to leave.

Goodbye

We attended even less, checked out emotionally, and pulled back on our financial contributions. We talked about alternatives, and began, slowly, to scope them out. Neighboring cities? Neighboring denominations?

Somewhere, there has to be a match for us. A soul mate. A congregation that’s going to understand us, and put our needs first.

And yes, while the breakup felt inevitable, we admit we did feel a tiny bit resentful. We tried hard, you see. A restaurant that provided unsatisfying service might not even earn a second visit, but you, church—

You’ve provided partial satisfaction and incomplete joy for years and we kept giving you another chance. I mean, if anything, you owe us.

We travel a lot as a family, and during this time, going to church in the cities we visited became a guilty pleasure. Each congregation visited was a fling before the final separation—walking in to those new spaces was unfamiliar, sometimes a bit uncomfortable—and also, exhilarating. The world was full of so many possibilities, many with features we only dreamed of back home.

Which is how we found ourselves in a spare white chapel in St. Louis. The minister, herself a visitor to the congregation, paused in the liturgy to raise a hand heavenward, then sweep it from side to side, insisting that the assembled congregation take note of the many still-standing visitors gathered at the back of the chapel, scoot away from the aisles to make space, and then raise their hands, fingers extended to indicate how many seats for newcomers they had adjacent.

See?  We thought. You can do these things better.

Thus accommodated, we settled into our seats and awaited our portion of self-satisfaction.

And received, instead, a smack upside the head. Figuratively, of course.

Because the Rev. Margret O’Neall was there to speak to us about consumer culture, and what it looks like when we bring it to church.

Vintage gumball machine

We are steeped in something that is the very antithesis of an authentic religious experience. It is invisible, and it is everywhere—as seamless a part of our daily lives as the air we breathe.

That something is consumerism. In fact, we might even go so far as to call consumerism a national religion (establishment clause notwithstanding) in this 21st century moment—and we carry its sacred expectations right into our faith communities.

And friends: it doesn’t work well.

I hope that in the course of your own religious life there are at least a few sermons that you gratefully carry—the feelings, the moment of awakening—for years after hearing them.

This was one for my family; the moment when we realized that we weren’t satisfied because we cannot consume community.  That we were unsure where else to turn because we can’t purchase wisdom and depth. And that we need the flawed, frustrating collective because as humans, we are not wired to individually find our way to gratitude, love, or healing.

No Sale

And yet, if we’re not self-reflective about our intentions in our communities of faith, we are likely to approach our churches like satisfaction vending machines. And in so doing, we deny ourselves and our communities the opportunity for real change.

The thing is, transformation doesn’t always feel good. Sharing time, space, and resources often isn’t a warm and fuzzy experience in the immediate moment. Further, growth is hard, and maturity is demanding, and our dreams are expensive—and in ways that exact costs from each of us.

In consumer culture, when things get tough, we learn the lesson; we don’t buy that experience anymore.  We simply vote with our dollars and with our feet. Society says that’s the rational response, and mostly, it works ok.

But it doesn’t work in our faith communities.

We are used to being handed things in exchange for payment. So how should we be when we are instead in a place that focuses not on serving us, but on seeing us?

Friends, we need to give more, come always, and ask less. And then—amazingly, countintuitively—then things get magical.

My people, what is happening—what is on offer in the smorgasboard of plenty of your local church—is nothing short of transformation. You will be nourished. You will be changed. And eventually, you will grow, and in ways that will add richness and depth to your life, even as you help to add those qualities for many others.

But, get this: like the watched pot that never boils, this alchemy cannot happen while your focus is on YOU. On what YOU need. On what YOU get.

sulky angry child

So what might an alternative look like?

Let’s consider one example at issue as our churches work to expand Sunday morning programming, that we might do more than merely scratch the surface: our time investment on the Sabbath.

A quick in-and-out Sunday experience may be our goal . . . but why? And what happens if we take a deep breath and lean in to experience Sunday, at least the mornings, as a time FOR church? As a day in which church is not standing between you and your lawn, but a covenantal gathering standing for something larger, and of which we are gratefully a part?

I have many friends active in the LDS church, and recently, one of them posted on Facebook about having had “2-hour church” that day—a rare event due to severe weather. Usually, you see, they stay longer. Of this particular event, my friend shared, “I’m a fan, but it did feel like a waste of mascara.”

I laughed . . . and then I thought about us. By which I mean the Unitarian Universalists I know and love, and also quite a few others of us who hail from the mainline Christian tradition.

I thought about our tendency to literally watch the minutes tick by anytime we’re approaching the one-hour mark in a worship service. And about our sense that, “It was too long” is meaningful feedback for a minister—or for ourselves—in reference to a worship service that took 15 hours to create, and which lasted for one hour and five minutes.

Orange alarm clock 3d. Icon. Isolated on white background

Friends, we think two-hour church is a waste not of mascara, but of our morning.

Why is that?

Because we are so unbelievably overscheduled that adding even one more hour will tip the balance of quality of life for the worse?

Because we can be certain that we will get nothing of consequence out of the worship or religious education being offered during a second hour?

Or is it, perhaps, because we believe both of the above propositions because of a third thing: because in our minds we have walked not through the door of a church, but a vending machine. Church is a spot for a quick hit, one we can attend without breaking stride in the rest of the weekend.

And thus, we’re here for this food and that sermon and this nursery and that group but not this other stuff. Don’t make us touch these things. Don’t ask us to sit through them, or think about them, and heavens, no, we’re not going to pay for them.

GIVE US WHAT WE WANT, OR WE’LL GO SOMEWHERE THAT WILL.

Angry boy screaming, demanding something

Here’s the thing. You can approach church that way. Also, parenting—I read an essay recently from a mother and father who, before the birth of their son, signed a contract with one another dividing up nights and duties and days off, treating their child like a job. (Unsurprisingly, that approach turned out not to be great for their child or their marriage.) But my people, the satisfaction you seek will not be yours. Not at church, not on the “give me what I pay for” path.

When we begin our church journey convinced that we don’t have enough of what we need, and proceed by trying to stake a claim to whatever that is, and then by grabbing as much as we can, we are indeed indulging in worship.

We are worshiping scarcity.

And that falls right in line with that dominant culture, the water in which we swim.

As long as this is as close as we get to sacrificial spiritual practice, our church life is a waste . . . and not of mascara. It is a waste of potential. A squandering of days. A sacrifice of life-force.

Do you want your faith to be something more than a fashion statement?

Then your church needs to be more than a vending machine.

And so I invite you, as a spiritual practice, to try a different way on Sundays.

Show up. Breathe. Be.

Demand less.

Relax more.

And know that together, we are preparing to change the world.

Because we’re not making transactions.

We are making commitments.

Amen.

j

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Goofus and Gallant: interview how-tos for seminarians

Dear Readers: Raising Faith is delighted to bring you guest posts from ministers–those who have walked in your shoes, and those who, like the Rev. Meg Riley, just might ask you to come walk awhile alongside them in an internship . . . if you play your cards right this interview season.  Read on, and then get that resume ready.  

j

Student at Laptop

It’s interview season for ministerial fellows at the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which makes me remember the great and not-so-great interviews of years gone by. There’s something I’ve wanted to say to seminarians for a while but haven’t had a good platform, so I was happy when Jordinn told me she often opens up her space to guest-bloggers for just such occasions! So here goes:

When I was a kid, there was a magazine called “Highlights” that I only ever saw in the dentist’s or doctor’s office. My favorite piece was called “Goofus and Gallant” and it featured black and white drawings of two boys–one did everything just right and the other was totally rude. I, of course, loved Goofus, and loved to read about his exploits, and thought Gallant was a total bore and suck-up. But now, as an interviewer and supervisor, I’ll pick Gallant every time.

So here, without drawings, is my depiction of how Goofus and Gallant answer interview questions at the CLF. And, though I’ve changed specifics, I swear to you that I have heard variations on Goofus’ answers and seen Goofus’ behaviors too many times to count by now.

Question: Why do you want to work with the Church of the Larger Fellowship?

Goofus: I’m planning to live on a Greek island for a while, and this is the only internship I can have while I do that. So it’s really important that I get it—in fact I need it! It will work perfectly for me!

Gallant: The Church of the Larger Fellowship does compelling and important work, and I want to be part of the team that’s doing it!

(Hint: It’s not about you. This is a fluff question. If you don’t really think the CLF does compelling work, and it’s truly your only option for an internship, then lie and tell us what we do is fascinating. Or better yet, wait for the opportunity to apply someplace you find more exciting. Your ministry will benefit from your discernment . . . and so will ours.)

Question: What is it about our work that you find compelling?

Goofus: To tell you the truth, I haven’t followed it that closely. I just haven’t had time. I’m really busy. I know you have a … website?

Gallant: I have looked at your websites, visited your online worship, followed you on facebook, and read your daily meditation. I think what is most compelling to me is that you are creating a real, vibrant, online community and I am really curious about how you do that.

(Hint: If you didn’t take time to research us, we wonder why you’re comfortable taking our time now to interview you. We’re online, for God’s sake.  In five minutes you could have learned enough to bluff your way through this interview–though if you really want to impress us, you’ll go deeper in your detective work.)

Question: What are your growing edges in ministry?

Goofus: Self-care. I really need to take better care of myself. I’ll be looking to add yoga to my acupuncture, meditation, sea-shanty chorus, and long-distance roller skating schedule.

Gallant: I am excited to see how my skills from a bricks and mortar church will translate to an online ministry. I think I’ll be growing in every direction as I do this new thing!

(Hint: Later, if you do end up working with us and it seems like self-care is an issue, we’ll be really interested to help you with that. But right now, as you come in the door, we want to know that you are motivated to learn what we want to teach!)

Interviewer: That’s all the questions we have. Do you have questions for us?

Goofus: Yes. I have a lot of them. Will you pay my way to GA? Will you buy me a new computer, because mine is old? Will you give me six weeks off in the winter to attend intensive classes? Will you pay my way to training for video classes?

Gallant: Yes. I have a lot of questions, of many different kinds. Has anyone ever said they were suicidal on Facebook, and what did you do? I’ve noticed that sometimes the sharing in worship gets really intense about difficult life circumstances. Do you follow up with the people who share in any way? I’m also wondering what supervision looks like, and how I will interact with all of the other fellows at the CLF. Oh, and I also have some questions about equipment and time for seminary classes that I’d like to ask you at some point.

Hint: If the only questions you have are about your needs, we wonder when and if you are going to start thinking about the actual ministry that this position involves. For now, you are trying to win us over. These are very good questions to ask if offered the position, as you consider whether to accept it. Because after we’ve thought through all of the people we interviewed, gotten most excited about you, and selected you, then meeting your needs for time and equipment and support will be important to us—at that point we’ll think we can’t live without you! But before we have decided we want you to work with us, you are basically giving us a list of obstacles– and those are reasons to choose someone else.

Additional dos and don’ts :

  • Goofus shows up disheveled, in pajamas, in a dark room with bad wifi.

Gallant checks out wifi capability in advance, practices with a friend, creates a nice visual space and puts on actual professional style clothes.

  • Goofus eats breakfast during the interview and answers texts on a smartphone. (“Sorry. It was a friend about dinner tonight and I had to take it.”)

Gallant looks alert and gives the interview full attention.

In a nutshell: Do your homework. Look (better yet: BE!) hungry for real learning. Give the interview your full attention. And above all: show us what this organization stands to gain if we bring you on board.

Remember that the CLF mission –like the mission of every other teaching congregation–is not to minister to seminarians but to engage seminarians in ministering to the world.

Good luck! Now show us what you’ve got. Rev. Meg Riley

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Rev. Meg Riley is Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU congregation without walls. She has, by now, interviewed dozens of people to work with her on various projects, and has a pretty good knack for knowing who will work. Riley loves nothing in life more than a strong team, but by now she has decided she’d prefer to go it alone than try to wangle a Goofus into a Gallant.

What we learned when we didn’t get divorced

My husband is an in-it-all-the-way kind of husband.  He is my best friend, teammate, foil, helpmeet, and occasionally, confessor. He has—more than once—crowded into a hotel bathroom at 1 am to listen to me preach a draft sermon. And often, he’s my first reader. That is very much the case now, and it is with gratitude to and for him, for our marriage, and for his willingness to allow me to tell a story that is not mine alone that I share this post. 
Craig, I love you so much. Thanks for adventuring with me. – j

As a law student, I volunteered in a “clinic” providing legal services to low-income residents of Salt Lake City. This particular clinic specialized in family law, and one of our primary tasks was guiding individuals through the steps of pro se divorce paperwork.

Pro se is a legal term of art from the Latin; it translates roughly as “on your own behalf.” What it means in this context is that in Utah, couples can self-divorce as long as the action is uncontested. This might be surprising in a conservative state, but it helps keep the dockets clear, encourages couples to work together wherever possible, and provides very clear financial incentives for keeping the process civil.

And so, upon joining the family law clinic, student volunteers were handed a CD-rom of forms and guidelines and instructed to spend some time at home familiarizing ourselves with it.

I was busy, though—like all law students, the reading load alone was crushing (seminary students, take note—you have no idea), and I also had Journal, a TA appointment on the main campus, and a newborn. So I never did take the time to really sit with those forms.

Until the night I decided to use them.

I don’t know how it started, exactly. It wasn’t just one thing. It was, instead, a pebble by pebble rockslide that eventually triggered an avalanche.

Lack of sleep. Worries about money. The seismic shift of new parenthood, paired with a stressful schedule, inconsistent childcare, a newly purchased house in what had turned out to be a nightmare of a neighborhood, and a long and messy commute for me paired with an increasingly isolated life telecommuting for my husband.

The end of law school was just visible in the distance, and as I had suspected—had feared, but had also, in that place of inner certainty, known for all the time it was possible to know—I had no intention of practicing law. None. Ever.

I could feel the light going not just out of my eyes, but out of my soul. By that point, it had become difficult just to get out of bed on school days. And trudging back and forth to classes for three years was one thing; contemplating the entirety of my life after that was simply more than I could bear. And so, while my classmates filled out applications for the bar exam, I began getting things in order to return, upon graduation, to teaching.

This was an incredible relief for me. The clouds parted, the horizon came into view, and like that, I had a future again—one in which I could imagine a possibility of happiness. It was, meanwhile, an incredible shock for my husband. He was enraged, underneath which he was disappointed and scared.* I, in return, felt betrayed and furious, unable and then unwilling to partner with someone so ready to offer my misery unto the world if only it could provide convenience and security in return.

And so, dark days trickled into fractious and difficult weeks, and all of them led, inexorably, to our dining table late one spring night. I sat alone with my laptop, and I did for myself what I had never bestirred myself to do for someone else: I grabbed that CD, and I read those forms. I went to the Utah State Courts website. I entered my name as plaintiff.

And page by page, my fingertips walked the journey that would end with the state of Utah agreeing to dissolve our marriage.

 

Until I got to the section about child support. Because, recall, we had a child, my husband and I—a chubby, dimpled babe, the light of both of our lives. Utah determines child support obligations based on nights spent per custodial parent. And thus, to go any farther with the forms, I was required to state, for the record, where our beloved baby would be spending each and every night of every month of his foreseeable future.

And that is when I cried.

Weeks and months of stress and anger yielded simply to pain. To grief. And, ultimately, to a hardscrabble kind of hope, one born of the realization that while I was angry, I was not—not yet—angry enough to force my way through this child support form. That probably, we could figure this out, because even the hardest conversation imaginable could not be more horrible than this.

And so, we cooled off . . . and then also, we thawed. We talked. We forged a stopgap truce, and eventually reenvisioned not just my future, but ours. Together. As a family.

Yes, that was the time that our story came closest to ending, and continued anyway. And I don’t tell this story often, but when I do, I end it here. It’s hard enough just to talk openly about marital difficulties.

But the truth is this: that moment of yielding and reconciliation gave us another day. But it was not, on the whole, enough to change things. A forgiving spirit and knowledge that we had weathered past crises successfully gave us a calmer confidence when we were in trouble.

But what we have needed in the seven years since that night at the dining table is a way to stay out of the danger zone in the first place.

And what has saved us is our sex life.

Yep. I just said that.

What has saved us, in fact, is treating our sex life like a spiritual practice.

The thing is, sex isn’t something we had to think much about in the beginning. (Though I’m sure we did think about it. Lots.) We were young, attracted to one another, and rich in time in the way that only people with no jobs and no kids can be.

Physical compatibility is not a bad place to begin a relationship, but ten years (now 17!) and many significant life changes later, it was time for an intentional revisiting of our covenant.

But we didn’t even realize we had a sexual covenant, and certainly no one encouraged us to talk about it. Yes, it’s ok to feed your baby solid food now. Also, how’s your sex life working for you? Have you considered what your priorities are? How about some goal setting?

 Pediatrician with baby

And so, we stumbled along into our future, giddy with possibility but also uncertain and afraid. Can these good times last? What happens when things become difficult again?

I think our answer, like that of so many couples might have been, “eventually you just grow apart.” Except we happened upon first one book, and then another.

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The first text, Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Sex, helped us to appreciate the holy importance of sex in a marital union. How sex is part of God’s gift to us, and how treating it with the reverent joy of sacrament might help us to value our entire relationship differently. And to make choices differently as well, or at least to understand what we may be putting on the line when we decide how we’re going to be with one another.

Examples: sex is a sacred obligation; a gift that we give, unencumbered, to one another. We should be naked when we do it—not so much as a sock on—and we should treat each other’s bodies with mystery and reverence the rest of the time. And sex is important enough to the marital relationship that choices, like extended business travel, that impinge upon it should be regarded with deep suspicion.

This book is likely not for everyone—it’s situated within the conservative reaches of the American Jewish tradition, and Unitarian Universalists can expect to do some translating as well as some theology in reading. I suggest that we engage this critical reflection in the spirit that Rev. Rebecca Parker encourages us to cultivate in her own work, Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now–that is, as theologians ourselves, engaged and passionate thinkers who bring our own lived truths to the text.  And also, to sex.

Which brings us to the second book—the one that changed everything.

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Doug Brown, sex columnist for the Denver Post (did you know that this is a thing?), and his wife, Annie, were in something of a rut. They were raising two small children, felt bored and isolated in a their new city, and eventually, began to sense a disconnection even from one another.

And so, they embarked on an experiment. The Browns planned carefully—French lingerie, yoga for toning, attending a sex expo together and experimenting with toys, lube, and even Brazilian waxing . . . but the crux of the deal was this:

The couple agreed to have sex. At least once. Every single day. For 100 days.

The Browns called this experiment “The Marathon,” let their friends and family in on the secret, and documented the results. The tangible end product is a memoir, Just Do It, that we found recognizable, hilarious (I note that Publishers Weekly hated it . . . I submit that the PW columnist might want to take some of Doug and Annie’s advice)—and also, astonishingly helpful.

And I know this because, well: we tried it. Our “marathon” was much shorter—a month—and we told no one during the experiment itself. Also, we were low key. No Sex Convention for us, no yoga, and certainly no “Brazilian” (I mean, seriously. I survived childbirth—unmedicated—for that? When do we torture the men?)

And still, the experience was powerful.

Here is some of what we learned:

*This is a LOT of sex to have in a month

*You will become a lot more comfortable in your bed, in your relationship, and in your body by the end of it

*This kind of short-term experience can alter your relationship in a way that lasts years (maybe forever).

In our own “marathon,” Craig and I developed a trust in each other we had never had. It was, in fact, a trust we never realized was lacking; it is nothing short of amazing what can blossom in a partnership when two people are truly vulnerable with one another in a sustained way. It’s like Outward Bound, for couples.

For us, the marathon acted as a covenant within a covenant—a calling back toward one another, again and again, whatever else had happened that day, or even the night before. Something didn’t go well? We both knew we’d have a chance to reconnect, and soon. This knowledge added both grace and responsibility; there was simply no getting out of doing the work of couplehood.

As for long-term results—the kind that make me know that it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to need to know whether Kansas offers pro se divorce?

First, we touched each other more, outside of bed. In yet another feature we didn’t realize we’d lost, we began to connect with affectionate physicality throughout the day.

Also, we laughed more together, let things go sooner, and took creative risks—in areas that had nothing to do with our sex life.

And finally, we kickstarted an ongoing sexual partnership that has seen us through most of the second decade of a sometimes complicated marital relationship. There is a remarkable return on investment for time spent doing this thing which, on the whole, is highly enjoyable. Need to stay connected when things are busy and it feels like there’s never any time? Have more and better sex. Want to maintain a partnership even when it feels like you’re running a divide-and-conquer offense? Have more and better sex.

In short, when we discover how much we enjoy being in each other’s company, including in bed, we can use it to build on. In our culture, we’re taught to think of sex like frosting—it’s an indulgence, non-nutritive, and, depending on our relationships with our bodies, possibly even sinful.

But here’s the thing: In a long-term romantic partnership, sex isn’t frosting. It’s foundation.

This is Rabbi Boteach’s message—and now it’s mine, too.

If your marriage matters, so does your sex life.    

And so, I offer you three tips, presented in order investment of time and energy required. Try one, try all, make your own and share . . . but your sex life is part of your life. What might happen if we make a concerted effort to live like we believe it?

  1. Talk about it!

You can do it behind closed doors. You can whisper. We don’t all have to say YOUR SEX LIFE, in writing, on Facebook. But if you are living in covenantal partnership, give this part of your covenant some space on your next date night. How is your sex life working for you? What do you celebrate about this part of your life together? What might you like to do differently? And what are you curious about?

(These kinds of questions come from a model called “appreciative inquiry,” and they—plus lots of listening—are one way to talk about things we’re often afraid to touch, conversationally speaking. Use the questions above, or make up your own, and aim for a culture of celebrating the positive and wondering about everything else.  Do this, and you are likely to come away from the conversation with an increased sense of partnership, more openness . . . and maybe a few great ideas. )

  1. Show your TV the door. Your bedroom door.  And tell it to take your iPad with it.  

I know—what!?

Here’s the thing, though: your devices are running your nightlife, whether you realize it or not. If what you see when you look up from your pillow is not the face of your beloved, but a screen, survey says, you’re having less sex. Much less. Fifty percent less, according to one study, which also noted that violence and reality TV are particular libido-dampeners.

And it’s not just the TV.  Small-device screen time–use of phones, tablets, and laptops– in the hour before bed has lately been linked with decreased melatonin and poor sleep quality, both of which may have an echo effect on your sex life.

What would happen if you took the no-tv plunge?

Only one way to find out.

  1. Just Do It.

You can read this book, if you’re interested—it formed a shared base for our own explorations, and we laughed a lot reading it—but really, no book required.

Have sex. Every day. For a week . . .

And watch what happens.**

It should be noted that if you are living in the context of an abusive relationship, following these tips may serve to further entrench that dynamic.   Further, I don’t know if this advice holds, without modification or at all, in a GLBT context. I’m not sure, either, how much of my experience transcends my own race and culture, or how it might apply later in life or with bodies that work differently than mine. I’d love to hear your perspective, though.

With those sizeable limitations, however, and a sample size of roughly 2, my best relationship advice is simply this: have more and better sex.

And I think that’s more likely to happen if we acknowledge our sex lives as part of our whole lives—a sacred, spiritual, and healing part.

Enjoy, friends.

 J

j

Lovely couple in bed, focus on feet

*Understandably, it should be noted. My husband is a practical person, a decide-and-be-done-with-it sort of person. He helps keep our family together. He helps keep me together. And also, he has known what he wanted to be since he was five. And then he grew up and became it. That is, in one sense, the whole story, which partly explains how the story of us—the melding of two individuals—is both magical, and not without intrinsic difficulty.

**Also, if your partnership is one in which pregnancy is a possible result of your sex life, and that’s not a possibility you would wholeheartedly embrace, I CAN NOT OVERSTATE the importance of effective birth control in undertaking this experiment. Use it. Before you do it.

Wait. Or, why seminarians don’t blog.

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A couple of years ago, I used to celebrate a Thursday night writing ritual with a bunch of other mommy bloggers.  It was called Five Minute Fridays, and the idea was to write for five minutes flat on a particular theme.  No edits.  No takebacks.  Feel it, write it, post it, link it.  The post came out just before midnight, and I’d stay up late and revel in the deliciousness.

I loved FMF.  I love to write like I love to run, and I bet even those of you who don’t love either can see that there’s a big difference between dashing through a field of wildflowers, laughing for the sheer joy of it, and running timed laps on a track.

Five Minute Friday, for me, was the field.  It was a place where I could play.

Until I couldn’t. 

I stopped writing FMF right around the time I entered seminary in an official way.  It became challenging even before that, though, as this blog and to some extent my formation process gained a following I never expected.  I spent awhile wrestling with that—layperson vs. seminarian, private citizen vs. public representative, mine vs. ours—and then, eventually, I quit.  In the end, there was no fighting it, not if I wanted to follow this call.  I stopped posting well before I stopped writing, and eventually, I took the entire adventure off my blog.

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There are things you give up on this journey, and no edits, no takebacks, write-what-you-feel is among the first.

And it should be.  Do you want a minister who says, in print, whatever enters her mind at any given moment?  As a representative of your congregation?  As a representative of Unitarian Universalism, or of people of faith, generally?

Of course you don’t.

And so, there are tradeoffs.  You learn, in short, to govern yourself.

A minister I know explained to me a few months ago that she doesn’t feel called to do any particular filtering of her communications, in writing or anywhere else, because the filtering is built into her very identity.  “I am,” she explained, “fully a minister wherever I go—equally so in the pulpit and at the grocery store.  This is part of living into the calling.”

Personally, I cannot at this moment conceive of having thoughts which confine themselves exclusively to the realm of “appropriate public ministerial presence.”  In fact, unless the latter part of seminary education includes a lobotomy, I don’t anticipate ever approaching my identity in quite that way.

And so for me, at least, it’s a question of boundaries.  What I choose to say, and how and where, and what tools I will use to discern it.

And for now, that takes time.  It takes conscientious effort.  And it takes a sense of what the outer limits are.

 gesticulate hand stop sign

You can still be real, inasmuch as anyone can be, on a page.

You can still be vulnerable, if you’ve weighed the risks and benefits and can stand in self-differentiated space with what comes next.

You cannot, however, be raw.

“Don’t bleed on the congregation” is what we tell those taking the pulpit for the first time with a personal story in hand.

It holds here, too.

And that, more than anything, is why I cannot do Five Minute Friday . . . not out loud.  Raw is what gets left on the cutting floor.  Sure, I fix a few typos, fill in some bridge material, and wrestle my inner wordiness demon to the ground.  In between the lines of all of that, though, my editing process is mostly mopping up the blood.

Thus, some of the hardest things I’ve written about here have been on ice for more than six months before being posted.  I have a piece in the works, now, that may actually never see the light of day, at least for any public purpose.  And “hard” or not, there is virtually nothing I post here that doesn’t go through formal editing with draftreaders, feedback, and changes.

My words are my public face.  And my public face, now and going forward, is ministry.

This filtering process is time-consuming.

It’s exhausting, even.

And it’s necessary.

Meanwhile, in the midst of ongoing structuring and editing of my long form pieces, much of my writing is being diverted to other places.  In addition to sermons (a number) and seminary essays (a large number), I have spent the last year experimenting with microblogging—writing shorter meditations and reflections intended for Facebook.  I’ve been posting these publicly, and it’s been a leap of faith, as I try to find a ministerial voice as myself, and not just as my Raising Faith alter ego.

It’s school of hard knocks a lot of the time.  How best can I talk with people who know and care for me, but not necessarily for my ministry?  How might I be a bridge for some of the harder conversations we need to have in this moment in our society?  How can I ethically and respectfully share the words of others while advancing a message that is my own?

In addition to being time consuming, this side of online ministry has also proved frustrating—interactions on challenging topics are indeed happening, and there is little that exposes my growing edges as quickly or as fully as opening myself to true dialogue.  It is hard to be myself as individual and grow into myself as minister while trying also to act my way into the humble, honest reaching out and truth-speaking that I believe is needed right now.

Amid all of this experimentation and musing and flying by seat of my pants, I am deeply grateful to my people—those of you who are primarily from the “real life” side of my world—the people who know me as me, and demand that I keep it real, always— who have also hung in there through this time of change and challenge.

If, on the other hand, you only know me here, please feel welcome to find me on Facebook.  Search “Jordinn Nelson Long,” and hit “follow.”  Comments are enabled . . . it’s an experiment that I’m going to continue, for now, as we all learn together.

The conversation may not always happen here, but it is happening.  And I’d love to hear from you.

 

And finally, I have something to say—about this blog, and about why I have sometimes wondered if I shouldn’t—to those of you who are finding this site as prospective seminarians.  There are a bunch of you each spring (this is our third year at this, gang—can you believe it?), and this year, I’ve been wishing I could speak to you more directly.  And finally, it occurred to me that perhaps I can.  So I shall.

There is indeed a lot of great content here that will help you on your journey.  I took only a coordinating role in most of it.  There’s great advice from ministers (ie, your senior colleagues) in a three-part post about making this transition in your life.  There’s also great advice from your seminary colleagues here, and some tips about the application process here, and something to make you laugh (though perhaps moreso once you’re actually in seminary) here.

Read these things.  They are here because I wished for them when I was in your place.

What I want to talk to you about, though, is other stuff.  Things like this and this.  I cringe when you find them, and even more when you share them, and I wonder if, like Five Minute Friday, I should just take them down.

And I think about a time a couple of years ago when a ministry mentor asked me what I thought I was doing with my blog.  I explained that it was just a space to sort out my thoughts and post my long-form essays, and she said, “I understand what you’re putting there.  I just don’t understand why.”

We talked more, and aside from disbelief that anyone would possibly want to read the tortured ravings of an emo seminarian (and I’m not arguing with her; I’m not sure why anyone would, either), she expressed one other thought: if you’re going to post these things, you’re going to have to keep going.  People looking are going to need to see the range.  They’ll be looking to see that you grow.

And that’s exactly the thing, dear prospective-seminarian googlers.  I worry about you who look and see only a snapshot—and right at that scary, heady moment when you’ve realized that whisper in your ear isn’t going anywhere and you’re deciding whether you might stop running from it and say “yes.”

Here’s the rub, and maybe I should go back and write this at the bottom of every page.  It gets better.  It gets deeper.  If you indeed love it—this calling, this process—you will love it with all your heart and all your soul.

Unfortunately, formation defies words in some key ways—and so I now understand more why my mentors couldn’t say much more than “It’s SO worth it” and “Trust this” and “You’ll be fine.”

So I can’t really write you an explanation, any more than they could give me one.  All I have is a testimony, and perhaps it’s actually an artifact of history, one told, mentor to mentee, across generations:

It’s worth it.  Trust this.  You will be fine. 

Keep that with you, and don’t listen overmuch to anything else I may have said.

Each post is just a snapshot in time, like so many others.  Read it, file it, and keep walking.  I did.

And eventually, I found another word.

Wait.

That was the Five Minute Friday word last week.  It’s been many months, more than a year, since I last looked, and things have changed significantly both there and here in the meantime.  But that word is my word, and now I give it to you, too.  To all of you, and most especially to me.

Wait.

This word, above all else.

That is this process.

And that is why seminarians don’t blog.

j

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*We do blog, actually.  Obviously.  Case in point.  But it does become hard at times.  We do still believe in blogging, and we still have things to say.

It’s just hard.  And for more on that, read Claire.